This Friday ECM will release a duo album bringing pianist Vijay Iyer together with trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith. This is very much a meeting of generations. Back in the Sixties, Smith was a member of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), a Chicago-based non-profit organization committed to the cultivation of the avant-garde in jazz. With fellow AACM musicians Leroy Jenkins and Anthony Braxton, he co-founded the Creative Construction Company. At that time Iyer was not yet a teenager.
This duo was not Iyer’s first encounter with Smith. He had been a member of Smith’s Golden Quartet, which had released the DVD Freedom Now in April of 2008. However, the two realized that they were exploring their own approach to duo work within that quartet. Thus, it was only a matter of time until the duo established its own identity apart from the quartet.
Motivation to form the duo may have been further motivated when Iyer was given a commission through the Saroj Jhaveri Foundation, sponsored by the R. & S. Nanavati Charitable Trust No. 2. The commission was to prepare music that would be performed in conjunction with an exhibit of the art of Nasreen Mohamedi by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in its new Met Breuer building, the former venue for the Whitney Museum of Art. The building opened last Friday (March 18); and the Mohamedi collection was one of the first exhibits.
Iyer filled his commission by composing A cosmic rhythm with each stroke, a seven-movement suite created collaboratively with Smith. Both of them studied both Mohamedi’s work (an example of which is on the cover of the new album shown above) and her journals. The result was, for the most part, improvised. This suite is the major work on the new album. Iyer also created an “overture” to the suite, entitled “Passage.” Smith then concluded the album with “Marian Anderson,” whose notation is a colorful graphic score.
Listening to Smith, one recalls that Miles Davis’ “electric period” during the Seventies had been a major influence on his work (including his album Yo, Miles!). Just to name one example, many of the tracks from Bitches Brew would give the attentive listener some valuable clues to the origins of Smith’s own tropes. This makes for an interesting combination, since Iyer often evokes Thelonious Monk as one of his own major influences.
One result of such distinct sources is that, while there is never any doubt that these two are engaging as a duo, it often seems to be the case that collaboration has more to do with superposition than with shared ideas. One sign of this “separation of equals” is that Smith’s intonation often departs from the equal-tempered intervals of Iyer’s keyboards. (He plays a Fender Rhodes as well as an acoustic piano. He also makes minimal use of electronic synthesis, which is most effective when he summons up frequencies so low as to be at the threshold of fused audibility.)
These results can be very satisfying as an approach to abstraction. However, the impact of Mohamedi’s work, visual or written, on those abstractions is much more open to question. The accompanying booklet offers a few fragments from her journals, but these are little more than weak suggestions. Each movement of the suite has a title; but there is no indication of how (or if) those titles are connected to Mohamedi’s accomplishments. Nevertheless, there is no reason why the absence of such background knowledge should keep the attentive listener from being drawn to the tracks on this album.
Those fortunate enough to be in New York, however, may be in a better position to discover any connection to Mohamedi. Iyer and Smith will be performing at Met Breuer at the end of this month on March 30 and March 31. Whether they will be playing in a room in which Mohamedi’s pieces are on display has not yet been announced. Those dates, however, are just the beginning of a tour they will make together to promote the new album. Other performances will take place as follows:
April 1, Knoxville, Tennessee: Big Ears Festival
April 7, Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, Fromm Concert Series
April 15, Los Angeles, California: Occidental College
April 16, Fullerton, California: California State University at Fullerton
April 23, Washington, DC: Abramson Family Auditorium
June 19, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: Pittsburgh Jazz Festival
Further dates have yet to be announced.