A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, released on ECM in March 2016, is the rare improvisational piece with a title that clues the listener into its inner workings. In this series of journeying duets, pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith seek out and magnify aspects of cosmic rhythm, one phrase (and, often, one patient single note) at a time.
The centerpiece of the recording is a seven-part improvised suite inspired by the drawings and journals of the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi. The duo frames each section with an intellectual, often abstract idea drawn from her writings, and then explores its emotional resonances, chasing musical intimations of the divine and the eternal through slight, deliberate gestures – the aural equivalent of a visual artist’s “strokes.” Operating with shared awareness that the order of things (the “rhythm” of life) can change with a single such gesture, the two musicians approach the discussion with keen, slowgoing sensitivity, taking care to not freight any given moment with too much information.
As a result, much of the suite exists at several perspectival levels at once: It’s possible to appreciate the conversation from airplane altitude, as a series of textures or vast landscapes. It’s equally possible to burrow into the stroke-by-stroke detail of the exchanges, noticing the way Smith’s breathy, almost subterranean implications or Iyer’s atmospheric chords gently guide the ear toward new melodic ideas and harmonic colorations. The conversational dynamic isn’t quite the typical critic’s canard about artists so attuned to each other that they finish each other’s sentences: Rather, Iyer and Smith share a free-jazz reverence for the unfolding moment. Out of that, they cultivate a collaborative frequency in which grand profound proclamations and tiny little squabbling asides are accorded equal weight.
A Cosmic Rhythm was hailed upon its release as a triumph, with some critics placing it alongside landmark improvisation-oriented duets by Bill Evans and Jim Hall, and Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron. The album represents a reunion of sorts for Iyer, the acclaimed MacArthur Fellow, and Smith, a Pulitzer finalist whose massive discography includes long-form works dedicated to America’s National Parks and the civil rights movement (Ten Freedom Summers). The two musicians worked together in Smith’s Golden Quartet from 2005 to 2010, and have taught side by side at universities and arts centers around the world. We began our conversation with a discussion of the mental preparation involved in performing A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke live.
This music depends on careful balances of tonalities and ideas. So I imagine there’s a bit of work that happens in the sound check, before a performance…is it all technical, or does it also involve recalibrating one’s mind to access the spirit of the piece?
SMITH: Every space has an acoustical relationship, a kind of sonic print, and that makes a difference in the kinds of resonances that come out. When I play my sound, it should hit the floor and bounce around. I listen for that…sometimes my E works better than my D. The room can have a deep effect on how you hear, and also what you play.
IYER: I find I just need time to go into it. I usually go to soundcheck early to spend an hour’s worth of time on piano. And with this it’s a bit more complex, because I’m using Rhodes with effects pedals and also a laptop. I spend time trying to find the sound – particularly with the piano, because as we know, every one is a different instrument and has different qualities and resonances. Some are brash, some are mellow or darker. Sometimes the instrument doesn’t have much power – so you have to calibrate the expressive palette to find what’s possible. The piano is unlike trumpet – the sound comes from every side. It’s diffuse in the way it sounds within a space. It’s an environmental instrument…and I find that different rooms bring out different harmonics, ways of organizing pitch.
I’m curious about how you prepared for this duo project before the recording, and what the project taught you in terms of thinking about playing in such an intimate setting.
SMITH: I started by thinking about the beginning – Jelly Roll Morton, and Louis Armstrong with Earl Hines. I thought about how even when they were playing other people’s songs, they were all modern composers and performers, and the ways they thought compositionally. That version of “Weather Bird” [Armstrong and Hines], it’s one of my favorite duets of all time – the way they used suspension, the way they clicked at the right moment so that when they resolved, it’s an emotional lift. Very expansive. In another interview, I talked about this project with Vijay as expanding upon the idea of the piano/trumpet relationship that goes back at least to “Weather Bird.” What we’re doing is spontaneous yet thoroughly connected to compositional form. It’s part of the same history.
IYER: I worked from a very similar standpoint in terms of points of reference. But I must say, the reason this made sense in the first place is that Wadada and I already had a relationship through his Golden Quartet. The duo dynamic emerged in the quartet, as we were playing a lot together. I remember thinking while that group was playing that there was a lot here to revisit, in terms of other things we could build, work we could do on a different scale. Also, before we started I’d been thinking about Ronald Shannon Jackson and his idea that breakthroughs in the language of music have occurred in response to necessity. A good example is McCoy Tyner – when people talk about him in the Coltrane group, they always mention his intervallic vocabulary, the structure of his chords. It can be useful to look further, and ask questions like “Where did he find himself at that moment, when he was trying to match wits with Mr. Coltrane and spar with Elvin [Jones]?” Well, that group had certain requirements in terms of resonance, power, transparency. As the pianist, McCoy had to figure out how to comp in a way that was fully present yet made space for Coltrane’s lines – and that meant getting the instrument vibrating. In a sense, he was cornered: He had to come up with something that worked – it was his response to the requirements of the creative moments. When I stop to reflect on it, a lot of the dialog and the details between Wadada and myself has been borne from moments like that – first in the quartet, and then in the duo.
How did you prepare specifically for this? Did you have copies of Nasreen Mohamedi’s drawings hanging in the studio?
SMITH: I read notes from her diary, and looked at some of the drawings for a long time. I think I was looking for a way to endear this energy, to get very close to it.
IYER: This really goes to how you prepare individually for the creative moment, even if you are working with other people. You have some things developed, you have an arsenal so that when you show up, you can move in the blink of eye and react to whatever happens. I brought that mentality to this. I had some of her images on my laptop, and also her writing – I was particularly into her ideas about movement and texture, I remember that. So we each had our own set of materials to work with. When you play duo, you arrive equipped like that, then set about building something together with those materials.
SMITH: To me, those actions are linguistic actions. The things you had prepared in terms of ideas on the instruments, those are just the words you can use, the building blocks. When you’re working with language, you might have so much to say and all these words ready, but you only say what’s needed… Those elements Vijay had as part of his research, and what I had, they could all be expressed in larger and smaller ways. You draw on the elements, they’re part of what informs you, but the art in total is something else. That’s why even rehearsal is a spontaneous experience.
What were the conversations like before you actually recorded?
IYER: Once we decided we were going to make this, we both happened to be at Banff Center, teaching. We set aside a little time there to just go off by ourselves, we talked about it for a few minutes and then played a little. And the possibilities just emerged, revealed themselves. It was almost like we were already there, recording. And the same thing happened when we got to the studio….We were kind of setting up, and [producer] Manfred [Eicher] asked us to just make some sounds. We really just sat down and began creating the music. He asked us to just make some sounds, and literally the first sounds in that moment resulted in “The Empty Mind Receives.” You could call it a soundcheck, but really what we were doing was beginning. Or continuing.
So the heart of the record, this seven-part suite, is essentially improvised. There is no fixed score (as there is with the original pieces that bookend the suite), there is no structural framework that happens on cue during each performance. But you’ve said there are colors and emotional zones that you find each time. How do you then assess a performance? When can you tell that it “works”?
IYER: We are working with elements and ideas that are recurring, aspects you might recognize from one night to the next. I think of our work as creating a path each time, and of course that is very situational. It depends on the space we’re in, the people in the room. What’s confounding for people is that this approach is different from the desire for music as a fixed object. Wadada said something very wise about this once, in connection with [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme. When people try to play it, they usually imitate what Coltrane played. But if you look at the score, it’s a recipe for action. It’s bare, elemental. It just gives you a set of ingredients, to be mixed and developed and reworked. That’s the piece, not what’s on the page in terms of notes. The notes are an outline. Too often, the music world is obsessed with fixity – with repeatable stuff, whether it’s a melody or a four-measure loop. This piece challenges that – we’re suggesting that to appreciate it, you have to dislodge conventional notions about what a piece of music even means, what qualifies. In this creative process, we begin at the moment of performance by working with a set of materials that we’re also calling a composition. Even if those materials don’t go together quite the way they did when we recorded them. In a way, it requires you to literally deconstruct what you think of as a piece of music.
So, again, how do you know when you’ve succeeded?
IYER: I’ll say that each night has felt like its own breakthrough. A couple of weeks ago, we played in Poland. I remember thinking, while we were playing, that we were getting to something we hadn’t gotten before. Here we were working toward the same goal as always, and using some of the same elements and ideas. Still somehow the path was different. That is what happens sometimes when you are pinned to the present moment.
Let’s talk about attention. It seems increasingly difficult to captivate listeners for the kind of long journeys on A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. Has that been your experience?
SMITH: I’d like to inform you that when we play, for some great reason, people listen. I think we’re bigger than iPhone 29 – maybe it’s something about the dispositions of people who are coming to hear us. At the same time, I’m aware that focus is a very important part of making great art.
IYER: I’d also just say that the music involves all of us. It connects us all, pins us to the moment we’re all in. It’s not like we’re just broadcasting something – we’re actually reflecting it.… I find that part of the process in creating is about listening to the audience. Assessing where they’re at. You can hear them breathing, you pick up restlessness. If that’s present it becomes a part of the dynamic. On the flip side, it’s really extraordinary when, for example, you hear the sound of people exhaling together. And you realize that the music brought them to that place. That’s what music is doing, it’s working on the body. Basically, our job is to be that conduit, so everyone feels taken care of.… And devices, whatever technology is at hand, that can not matter to us. When the newspaper was invented, that seemed like a distraction to people. Music, it’s been with us for 100,000 years, tapping into something that’s essential about us. We know it works.
SMITH: One time [Anthony] Braxton and I played at the cafeteria in the Art Institute in Chicago. That was the noisiest place. I mean loud. There were people scraping trays, all that. Even there, we had a few confirmations that people picked up what we were doing. I just think when it comes to the environment itself, we have to conquer that. It’s not free, it’s not automatic. You have to earn it.
Vijay, in several interviews you’ve described Wadada as a “hero” to you. Can you expand on that a bit?
IYER: When Wadada plays, something ancient is in the room. There’s a certain energy that is profoundly human, and reminds us of who or what we’ve always been. There’s something about it that’s grounding, and profoundly true. I find that a whole room will orient around the sound of his trumpet – people in the room have a transformative experience.
This is the “mutual admiration society” segment of the interview – Wadada, what do you take away from creating with Vijay?
SMITH: Seeing clarity for what it is. And thinking about and understanding the well being of another human while making art. It can be painful both physically and mentally. Sometimes after we are done playing, we’re both drenched in sweat and we hug and embrace. It’s know that a deep love that makes this possible. I’ve known Vijay a long time, and I’ve never understood how someone can be so generous as so young a man. I’m talking about music and also just as a human being. You don’t find a lot of people who can do that.
IYER: Can I add some more? I just feel lucky. A lot of different factors brought us together, and a lot of it seems beyond our immediate control. What Wadada has brought to my life is a lot of levels of awareness about how music works, how the world works, how the universe works. And how people can be present for each other – it’s a human kind of learning that’s about life. When you see him in teaching contexts, you understand it. Everything who interacts with him walks away with this glow, this activation – it’s confidence and also an affirmed sense of self. In an instant, he can imbue people with that. It just radiates from him.
Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (Workman Publishing), and a contributor to other books including The Final Four of Everything. A saxophonist whose professional credits include stints on cruise ships and several tours with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra, Moon served as music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988 until 2004.