REVIEW: Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith at Wigmore Hall

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith at Wigmore Hall
Drawing by Geoff Winston. © 2017. All Rights Reserved


Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith
(Wigmore Hall, 6th January 2017; review and drawing by Geoff Winston)


The first event of Vijay Iyer's Jazz Residency at the Wigmore Hall was an evening of illumination and inspiration.

Illumination came in the form of an hour-long conversation between reknowned pianist Vijay Iyer and his 'hero, friend and teacher', trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, moderated sensitively by Kevin LeGendre, in the venue's Bechstein Room.

Inspiration came in the form of their duo concert in the sold-out auditorium, which majored on the suite, a cosmic rhythm with each stroke, Iyer's commission from The Metropolitan Museum of Art New York (MetLiveArts) to complement the major exhibition of works by Indian woman artist Nasreen Mohamedi (1937-1990) with which the museum's newly acquired space, Met Breuer, was launched in Spring 2016. The suite was also recorded by the duo a few months earlier in New York by ECM, with production overseen by Manfred Eicher, and this was the opening concert of an intensive, nine-venue European tour.

Crossing paths in the 90s, Iyer's broad musical outlook found resonance with Smith's transidiomatic approach (to borrow Anthony Braxton's term), with Smith inviting Iyer to join his Golden Quartet in 2005, playing in around 100 concerts over five years, with the pair of them often functioning as a 'unit-within a-unit'.

In a fascinating discussion they opened up generously, offering insights about music and their motivations, much in the manner of their approaches to performance with Iyer seemingly sticking to the script while subversively following fresh leads and Smith, sage-like, delivering bursts of insight and the occasional minor bombshell.

The scene was set with the music and social politics of Chicago's AACM with which Smith had been involved and which chimed strongly for Iyer with his American-Tamil/Indian roots. Iyer touched on his year as Artist In Residence at The Met (2015-16) where he was introduced to Mohamedi's abstract works with their 'meditative' qualities revealing 'glimpses of the infinite'. Smith articulated a deep response to her writings and was able to draw parallels with pioneering contralto Marian Brown.

Smith described the piano as a 'fascinating sounding board for the trumpet … a resonator', citing Weather Bird by Earl Hines and Louis Armstrong as 'one of the greatest masterpieces … between here and Jupiter!' Iyer focused on the nature of the duo 'encounter' and offered an unexpected perspective: 'You know what listening sounds like … you can hear us listening … You can draw the listener in [on] a collective discovery process', and Smith went on to discuss the way music 'reactivates our imagination'.

On stage the cosmic rhythm suite's seven movements were merged to become one continuous piece, in contrast to the recording's discrete sections, bookended by short compositions, as on the CD. Iyer led off with the lightest of meanderings on Fender Rhodes to create a meditational atmosphere which the white-suited Smith cut through with bright incisions using the mute for restraint to put down a marker of 'calm, but very present'. When the mute was dropped the drama intensified. Iyer segued to piano, hitting its bass registers while Smith ramped up the stakes with rasped flights, de-accelerated to allow the infiltration of serene keyboard passages. Hard, jumping chords and sharp, shearing blasts of brass combined to shape a complex, shared dialogue intermittently undermined by deep electronic pulses.

Whilst there was constant reference to the score, there were slews of departures and deviations with a free and improvised quality lending a pianistic Messiaen meets post-Miles trumpet quality to proceedings. As if to underscore this, Iyer slipped in a snatch of sampled voices on Uncut Emeralds, and a passage of Sun Ra-ish outer space electronics bloops and whooshings on A Cold Fire, neither of which appears on the recording. With impassioned intensity Smith squeezed all manner of tone from the trumpet, bent over crouching at times to 'make the sounds hit the floor'.

The two short pieces with which they encored were imbued with a spirit of inflamed invention that put the seal on a remarkable evening. I had seen the beautiful Mohamedi show in New York, so it had been especially rewarding to see how the suite continued to evolve with reference to her delicate, meticulously executed work and its spiritual qualities.

And on the bombshell front, Smith's wise words to a young student were, 'There's no such thing as jazz - there never was!', putting her firmly on the path of thinking out of the box.

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