Review: Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith at Wigmore Hall

A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke

Listening to Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer in conversation at Wigmore Hall was as inspiring as watching them play. Their preconcert talk, hosted by Kevin LeGendre, was insightful and frequently profound, touching on physics, mysticism and magic.

We heard Smith’s account of the time two undercover police officers infiltrated and performed with the AACM; his advice for a first year jazz student in the audience:

  1. Forget about defining yourself as jazz. Jazz doesn’t exist. It never existed.
  2. Forget what other people think about the way you sound.
  3. Imagine everything is possible for you.

And his thoughts about using expectation as a means of creating tension, on the performance space as ritualised, and on performance itself:

“When we step on the stage we destroy the memory that we exist. You forget that you are alive. You have no fear of death.”

Iyer discussed the line drawings of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, to whom the duo’s debut release, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke (a typically poetic phrase taken from one of Mohamedi’s diaries), is dedicated. He mused on their near-obsessive use of repetition and on the rhythm that emerges from it. Her drawings have a “meditative quality” and yet they also offer us “a glimpse of the infinite”.

And together the two musicians elaborated on the approach they take as a duo – using the piano as a sounding board for the trumpet and allowing the resonant properties of the rooms they play in to influence the direction of their performances.

I enjoyed A Cosmic Rhythm (ECM, 2016) on disc, but I don’t feel as though I fully understood what it was trying to say. Live and in light of the talk it all made sense. The connection with Mohamedi and the distinctiveness of the project were both obvious.

The musicians played continuously for just over an hour, finishing with two shorter pieces. Smith dressed all in white, leaning back and bending double, breaking notes against the floorboards before leaping into his upper register, as if catching a thermal. Iyer on piano, Fender Rhodes and electronics taking care of the meditative repetition and using his setup both as a sounding board and an amplifier for Smith’s trumpet – letting notes sing in the piano strings; triggering looping electronic glissandi that mirrored the trumpeter’s flights; and allowing stabs to explode across the keyboard, scattering like handfuls of broken glass.

There were passages of bracing dissonance. Smith’s muted opening salvo, sustained for upwards of 10 minutes, was so keening and discordant it felt as though he were driving the point of a knife between the bones in your ear. The resolution was blissful when it arrived, the purity of his sound and the tenderness of his attack almost shocking.

Another highlight came when Iyer took the lead, with an inexorable, writhing piano figure. Then Smith’s exclamations sounded weary, as if he were pleading with the pianist to stop, to slow down. He let him run for a while before rejoining the action and soaring to the top of his range – offering us a glimpse of the infinite.

– Thomas Rees  

— Photo by Roger Thomas

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