Listening to Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer in conversation at Wigmore Hall was as inspiring as watching them play. Their pre-concert talk, hosted by Kevin LeGendre, was insightful and frequently profound, touching on physics, mysticism and magic. There were stories – Smith's account of the time two undercover police officers infiltrated and performed with the AACM – thoughts about toying with expectation as a means of creating tension, on the performance space as ritualised and meditative, 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," stated Smith.
Iyer discussed the line drawings of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, to whom a cosmic rhythm with each stroke (a typically poetic phrase taken from one of Mohamedi's diaries) is dedicated. He mused on their use of repetition ("not obsessive, but very directed") and on the patterns and the rhythm that emerges from it. They have a "meditative quality" and yet they also offer us "a glimpse of the infinite".
Smith also gave advice to 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 together they elaborated on the approach they take as a duo – using the piano as a sounding board for the trumpet and listening to the resonant properties of every room they play in, allowing it to influence the direction of the performance.
I enjoyed a cosmic rhythm (ECM, 2016) on disc, but I don't feel as though I fully understood what the duo were 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.
They 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 set-up 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 broke off for a moment before redoubling his efforts and soaring to the top of his range. Offering us a glimpse of the infinite.
– Thomas Rees
– Photo by Roger Thomas