Within the progressive jazz realm, Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith have become such household names that they can go by their first names, so maybe it was destined that Vijay and Wadada would collaborate on a record. a cosmic rhythm with each stroke — going on sale March 25, 2016 from ECM Records — is an encounter of two distinct voices from two distinct generations but of a single, spiritual mind.
a cosmic rhythm with each stroke is only the third record Smith has led or co-led for ECM, the other two going back to 1978 (Divine Love) and 1992 (Kulture Jazz). While Smith’s output has since covered so much ground along the frontiers of jazz, his trumpet today has that same supernal charisma that defines the music on its own no matter what company he keeps for any given occasion.
On the other hand, this isn’t Iyer’s first encounter with Smith; Iyer served as keyboardist in the latter years of Smith’s Golden Quartet and later, his Golden Quintet, appearing on 2008’s Tabligh and on one-half of the double-disc Spiritual Dimensions the following year. Attaining rapport wasn’t going to be an issue between these two for these sessions; they worked that out some time ago.
Nevertheless, in the intervening years Iyer has grown immensely as a visionary, experimental and relentlessly curious artist, and a one-on-one on equal terms with his old mentor Smith is entirely logical move at this point. Maybe even inspired. The two virtuosos’ shared perception of where the music should go despite it being so abstract is really what makes a cosmic rhythm with each stroke land on its feet.
“Passage,” composed by Iyer, serves as a pertinent introduction to the rest of the fare in the sense that it’s an exhibition of deeply felt intuition. Perhaps closer to chamber music than avant-jazz, every carefully placed note from Smith is characteristically is weighty and human. Yet, the song breathes with natural cadence.
The meat of this album is the co-written “a cosmic rhythm with each stroke” seven-part suite, created as a tribute to Nasreen Mohamedi, a visual artist from India who made world-renowned drawings until her death in 1990 at age 53. Smith reaches high with broken but resonant notes during “All Becomes Alive” and Iyer offers up his own thoughts through graceful arpeggiated trinklings. Smith returns with more clarity and just as much purpose and sensitive to Iyer’s subtle chord changes.
A muted trumpet is employed for the peaceful “The Empty Mind Receives” as Iyer sketches a barren background, just enough cues for Smith to build upon. By contrast, “Labyrinths” is a little dark and more than a little agitated, and the interplay here is more explicit.
“A Divine Courage” is doing more with as little as possible, and it’s nearly silent for first minute before Smith enters. The wide intervals between Smith’s remarks elicit anticipation, over a barely-heard electronic bass pulse from Iyer marking the simple figure. Smith manipulates the plunger on “Uncut Emeralds” to broaden his articulation, playing inside of Iyer’s unpredictable turns. Electronic effects pop up later on, giving this song a ghostly feel. “A Cold Fire” begins as a distant rumbling, atonal inferno that gathers steam. Smith rides on top of it, eventually becoming one with Iyer. Iyer’s chiming electric piano on the lonely “Notes On Water” sets this performance a little apart from the rest, a moody ballad with an esoteric complexion similar to Wayne Shorter’s fine fusion ballad “Sanctuary.”
Tabligh begins with Smith’s tribute to a barrier-breaking African-American woman, “Rosa Parks,” and likewise, cosmic concludes with “Marian Anderson.” With lots of space between Iyer’s chords Smith is given much leeway, and he lets the phrases come to him.
Iyer and Smith both understand that the duo dynamic is nothing like the one involving two or three more musicians, especially when so much of the music relies on instinct, and both musicians are supremely trustful of their own instincts. Manipulating tone, passion and space with ample amount of empathy, a cosmic rhythm with each stroke is a meditative meeting of masters where each of the participants reach deep inside themselves to make this music.