Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith Haunt the Met Breuer with a Spare, Judicious Duo Show

by delarue

Last night at the Met Breuer (formerly known as the Whitney), Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith played ECM noir. For those who don’t follow jazz improvisation, ECM is the venerable German label devoted to the spare, classically-influenced kind, and these two have a new album, A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke, out from them. It doesn’t swing: it marinates. And what a marinade the state-of-the-art pianist and iconic trumpeter came up with in front of a sold-out crowd that rewarded them with a couple of standing ovations.

That marinade had acerbity and spice, and if you buy the metaphor, astringency, but also a persistent unease that often drifted into ominousness and desolation. According to Iyer, they drew significantly on the spare, meticulously miniamlistc work of Nasreen Mohamedi currently on display at the museum, which is where the Metropolitan Museum of Art has decided to stash their modern collection. The chemistry and cameraderie between the two players was comfortable to the point of joyous restraint. Each musician played with economy, Iyer with a chilly, airconditioned judiciousness, otherworldly Messiaenic harmonies, bell tones and an incessant, stygian pedalpoint that he finally took into the upper registers. For someone so direct, transparent and dedicated to getting the max out of the min, Smith employed a surprising amount of extended technique, from valve-shivering harmonics to ghostly wisps of breath.

This being a duo improvisation, there was all sorts of repartee, but ultimately the conversation wound down to “I’ve got your back.” Each anchored the other when he’d go out on a limb, Smith often providing calm, steady half-notes while Iyer clustered or insistently chiseled out space, Iyer providing moody reflecting pools and upper-register penlight illumination when Smith would fire off a series of flurries. Including the encore, there seemed to be six discrete pieces, most of them following a segue. Each segment followed a steady series of upward and downward arcs, Smith using his mute when the shadows grew longest, Iyer switching back and forth between piano and Rhodes as well as a mini-synth and mixer which he used for distant atmospherics and, finally, a persistent, looping rhythm. In the end, they came full circle, back to Iyer’s high/low, troubled/guardedly optimistic dialectics, Smith hovering with a magisterial warmth overhead.

And as if to say to the crowd, “You’ve earned it,” the encore was more still, and minimalistic, and rapt than anything they’d done  to that point – but also prayerful and ultimately hopeful. At the end, Smith went way up high for a fleeting two-note phrase and then immediately looked to Iyer with a we-got-it grin. Iyer sat motionless, holding down the keys: he wasn’t going to give anything away until its time. It made for an unexpectedly amusing ending to broodingly rapt night. Iyer and Smith are embarking on a US tour; dates are here.