Release Date: Mar 25, 2016
Record label: ECM
After John Coltrane’s death in 1967, the improvisational avant-garde found itself asking: Now what? Wadada Leo Smith’s discography stretches back to this critical moment in American experimentalism. As an early member of a Chicago collective, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (or AACM), the trumpeter worked in a trio that included saxophonist Anthony Braxton and violinist Leroy Jenkins—a group documented on the landmark 1968 release 3 Compositions of New Jazz. On that album and other recordings from the period, Smith’s performance aesthetic signaled the arrival of a confident and original voice.
In his liner notes to A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, pianist/electronicist Vijay Iyer writes that while working in trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith's Golden Quartet/Quintet between 2005 and 2010, the pair often became "a unit within a unit." Evidenced by Tabligh in 2008 and Golden Quintet's half of the 2009 double-disc Spiritual Dimensions, this album (marking the trumpeter's first appearance on ECM in more than two decades) underscores that assertion via distillation. It is one of essences. It reveals the intricacies of music-making according to principles of instinct as well as close listening.
In his eighth decade, the pioneering US trumpeter/composer Wadada Leo Smith is stepping even harder on the gas: he has released 10 very different albums since he hit 70, including the completion of his civil rights epic, Ten Freedom Summers, and has built a creative relationship with a much younger pioneer, the pianist Vijay Iyer. A trumpet/piano duo is a tough call, but the two operate with a charismatic delicacy and subtle force. The centrepiece is a largely improvised seven-part suite dedicated to Indian visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi.
"ECM style jazz" may have started out as an apt way of describing the clear and crisp aesthetic of the seminal German label, and notably the production style of founder/producer Manfred Eicher, but somewhere along the line it became a bit of a insult, associating any albums described as such with cold, overly-intellectual trappings and a lack of emotional resonance. As unfair as that might seem when one considers such landmark and modern jazz albums released on ECM, from Marion Brown's Afternoon Of A Georgia Faun to recent experiments in folk/jazz crossovers by Incredible String Band's Robin Williamson (via Dave Holland's Conference of the Birds, the entire ECM oeuvre of Keith Jarrett and the latest opuses by Poland's Tomasz Stanko), mud sticks, and ECM has become a byword for the kind of pensive, beard-stroking music played in stuffy concert halls to well-to-do audiences, far removed from the radical fire of, say ESP-Disk or Impulse in the Trane years. However, if any artist currently navigating the tempestuous waters of modern jazz could put the lie to this unfortunate stereotype about ECM, it's trumpeter/composer supreme Wadada Leo Smith, and, in tangent with über-talented young buck Vijay Iyer, he unintentionally does just that on A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke.
The trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith emerged in the 1960s and went along with some of the radical practices of that era in jazz and improvised music, but not all of them. He seemed skeptical around traditional harmony, but he liked structure, dynamics and intimacy. Then and still, he knows the power of a single musical gesture and cuts a clearing around himself when he plays: He uses open, full, melodic cries, and then grainy, blurry, throttled ones; he plays in recognizable rhythm for a short period or lets his phrases crumble.
The Upshot: The music simply translates deep musical respect and chemistry into moments of artistic fire and great beauty – the sound of modern jazz in full flower. Teacher and student, mentor and mentee – it’s a collaboration as old as human interaction. A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke displays that relationship as jazz. Trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith, whose career reaches back to the creative explosion that was Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, has long served as teacher to pianist Vijay Iver, whose star has swiftly risen in the past decade.