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Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith’s Cosmic Rhythms

Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith have been accumulating honors and accolades like Michael Phelps collects Olympic medals. But the two, who mesmerized a capacity crowd at Bezanson Recital Hall on Tuesday, September 27, have come to their success in very different ways.


After serious study of the sciences at Yale and a PhD from UC Berkeley, Iyer burst on the music scene in the late 1990s, collaborating with alto saxophonist Rudresh Mahanthappa and poet/vocalist Mike Ladd, forming a celebrated trio and composing for all manner of ensemble. In the last four years alone, the 44-year-old pianist has won numerous awards (Doris Duke, MacArthur, ECHO) and polls (2014 Downbeat Pianist of the Year, 2015 and 2016 Downbeat Jazz Artist of the year, multiple Albums of the Year.) He is also the Franklin D. and Florence Rosenblatt Professor of the Arts at Harvard. His rise has been meteoric.


Wadada Leo Smith, on the other hand, couldn’t even get arrested during the first half of his career. When asked over dinner how he summons the energy to keep up with his international travel schedule and his torrid composing and recording regimen, the 74-year-old trumpeter said he spent the first 40 years of his life “resting.” Although early commercial success eluded him, Smith was busy creating his own language on his instrument and his own system of music notation, while forging relationships with Leroy Jenkins, Anthony Braxton, Anthony Davis and Derek Bailey. In the last few years, however, he has won a MAP Fund Award, Chamber Music America New Works Grant, Mohn Award and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He was short listed for a Pulitzer Prize for Ten Freedom Summers, was awarded an honorary degree from Cal Arts and is on the cover of the current issue of Downbeat, where they called him “a national treasure.”


Having traveled divergent paths to notoriety, these two icons came together to kick off the 15th annual Solos & Duos Series at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. The 75-minute recital closely followed the contour of their well-received recording, a cosmic rhythm with each stroke (ECM, 2016), down to the epilogue, a tribute to the great contralto Marian Anderson, the first African-American to sing at the Met. The bulk of the program consisted of a suite dedicated to the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, whose line-based drawing graces the CD cover, and whose words give the release its title.


The music was spacious, abstract, atmospheric, filled with emotion. Without sustained melody or steady pulse, the concert was unmoored to the usual signposts. We were left with sound, texture and the interaction of two masters of expression. Smith uses silence more convincingly than anyone since Miles Davis. In fact, with his bent frame and his bell pointed downward, he resembled the Prince of Darkness. Smith’s conception is an acquired taste, one that has not changed appreciably since his New Haven days in the 1970s. Eschewing extraversion and pyrotechnics, Smith pleases crowds with subtlety and a cracked vulnerability.


Iyer used Fender Rhodes and his laptop to layer moods while producing gorgeous tones from Bezanson’s exquisite 9-foot Steinway. Self taught on piano, Iyer nonetheless has considerable technique at his disposal. Following Smith’s lead, however, he mostly played sparingly, using runs and clusters only when the music demanded it.


We live in a time when capitalist realism dominates every aspect of contemporary society. For most of us, it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine a world without neoliberal capitalism. That’s what makes this music so powerful. It forces us to acknowledge that a new world is possible. We can organize our lives in ways that are different from what we’ve been sold. Musical rules can be reinvented; sound can be organized in new ways. The yardstick is not just whether it swings, but whether it serves human needs.


The probing interaction and deep listening between these two giants – separated by 30 years, different cultural backgrounds and career trajectories – gives us hope that the gulfs that divide the world in so many ways, are surmountable.

Marty Ehrlich, extraordinary reed player, music scholar, storyteller and friend, returned to the Connecticut River Valley on December 16 to perform with his trio at the Blue Room in Easthampton, MA. T

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