Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith - A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke

by Finn Dickinson

A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke is the product of Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith – two of the biggest titans of the left-field American jazz scene. The former has earned a MacArthur Genius Grant, is currently a Professor of the Arts for Harvard University’s department of music, and has been releasing a string of boundary-pushing jazz albums for more than twenty years. The latter is a Pulitzer Prize nominated free jazz trumpeter, whose 2012 album Ten Freedom Summers generated a ludicrous amount of critical regard, and who recorded his first album when Iyer was barely two months old. Given their shared accolades and experiences, you’d expect A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke to be an interesting listen, to say the very least. But it is so much more than that.

The album’s first bookend, Passage, opens with the gentle meandering of meditative piano notes, which evokes a feeling of constant drifting and rotation, like some kind of dead satellite lost in deep space. Melody and tension are explored in equal measure, with each instrument giving its partner space to breathe. It certainly feels as though there is a ubiquitous flux and reflux dynamic to the music here – a dynamic which spills out into the album’s eponymous seven-track suite.

First movement All Becomes Alive is where we see Smith & Iyer’s creation really come to life. The wild, frantic trumpet which introduces the music is the auditory equivalent of being awoken by a plunge into a bath of freezing cold water, whilst the soft, electronic drones and understated piano which follow begin to give the impression that all the elements are falling into place. The next movement The Empty Mind Receives instantly establishes a gloomy and dark atmosphere, its grey-scale explorations conjuring up feelings of real dread and paranoia, whilst the music is jolted back to life in Labyrinths, wherein a shuffling introduction slowly leads up to a sweeping, melancholic conclusion.

A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke pushes the envelope even further by incorporating plenty of non-jazz influence. The tense, creeping drone of A Divine Courage, coupled with melodies that feel somewhat unconventional and strangely melodic for free jazz, reinforce the wide and vivid textural palette that the album so frequently embraces. Uncut Emeralds’ opening notes play around the boundaries of some kind of melodic resolution without ever reaching one, whilst the ambient undulations which follow complement the screeching trumpet perfectly, eventually lulling the instrument into a hazy, melodious stupor and allowing it to settle down. Avant-garde jazz pushes the boundaries of music, but A Cold Fire almost pushes the boundaries of avant-garde jazz itself. Harrowing, atonal walls of noise compound and compact the trumpet’s opening cries of torment and temporarily shift them to the background, allowing the rabid, scattered piano to come to the fore and soon be joined by a redoubled and reinvigorated trumpet.

Rampant experimentation aside, Iyer and Smith certainly aren’t afraid to let things cool down. Notes On Water features the tender shimmering of Iyer’s Fender Rhodes complemented by some of Smith’s wonderfully dynamic trumpet excursions, before the music settles into an astral groove (which is probably the title of one of the album’s discarded B-sides). The interplay between the two instruments is amongst the album’s finest, and really showcases the talent of both artists to the fullest extent. Final bookend Marian Anderson sees the return of the brooding, contemplative tone which snakes its way through A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. The lack of conventional structure allows the music to flow freely and powerfully, finishing the album off with a sense of unbridled force and purpose.

This sense of purpose is ultimately a large part of what makes this record one of the finest jazz releases I have had the pleasure of hearing in quite some time. Never before have I heard a free jazz album, unbound by the rules of melody and structure, manage to sound so astoundingly resolute and purposeful. It is rare thing that a collaboration between two artists manages to stand out in the catalogue of each contributor, but that’s certainly the case here. Never pompous and not quite perfect, A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke strikes a perfect equality between composition and improvisation, melody and dissonance, vibrancy and desolation – and is easily a contender for jazz album of the year.