Museum Concerts Capture Iyer, Taylor, Smith in Peak Artistic Form


Vijay Iyer (left) performs with Wadada Leo Smith at the Met Breuer on March 31.

(Photo: Deirdre Bird Rose)

Throughout March, pianist Vijay Iyer’s tenure as Artist-In-Residence at the Met Breuer resulted in what was perhaps an unprecedented range of artistic alliances by a single jazz artist in a series. Iyer performed in various configurations with more than a dozen artists, curated performances by many others and created several sound installations. The series’ climactic showpiece was the world premiere of Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith’s duo project A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke on March 31.

A Met commissioned work (and the centerpiece of the duo’s new ECM album of the same name), the suite is a seven-part exploration inspired by the work of the late Indian artist Nasreen Mohamedi, whose drawings, paintings and photographs and journal passages were on display in the Breuer’s second floor gallery.

Three floors above, on the penultimate evening of Iyer’s month long residency, Iyer, who topped the Jazz Artist of the Year category in the 2015 DownBeat Critics Poll, and Smith, who landed top honors in the Composer category of the 2013 Critics Poll, mounted the bandstand to debut improvisations springing from their inspired collaboration.

The performance commenced meditatively, with Iyer’s dark piano notes slowly decaying into the gallery space that was filled to capacity with a raptly attentive audience. A single upper register figure answered, establishing a rhythmic call-and-response pattern, upon which Smith, with his open belled horn pointed towards the floor, constructed a melodic figure in which ascending long tones swelled into a stammering run, culminating in a piercing bluesy fragment. Iyer responded with stabbing chords in a swing-to-free interlude.

The music progressed seamlessly with Smith blowing an anguished melancholy cry over an ominous piano passage that resolved into silence. Ambient electronics hinted at the sound of church organ, contrasting with muted trumpet. Elsewhere, Iyer’s Fender Rhodes electric piano buoyed Smith’s brassy open bell flurries.

The music, well suited to the reverential atmosphere of the museum, unfolded narratively, advancing forward through time and space with meticulous attention to fluctuating dynamics and contemplative moods. The duo, steeped in the traditions of Miles and Monk, improvised intuitively through the program with individualistic creativity. When the music ended, one could feel that not a single note had been wasted.

If Met Breuer’s Iyer residency was marked by its expansiveness, the Whitney Museum’s Open Plan: Cecil Taylor was distinguished by its sharp focus. Upon entering the enormous fifth floor gallery of the esteemed institution’s new home, one is immediately greeted by a giant video projection of a Taylor performance excerpted from the 1981 documentary film Imagine The Sound.

The east end of the bisected space overflowed with all things Cecil Taylor. The room’s north wall exhibited seventy album covers culled from the pianist’s vast discography, while the south wall was filled with more than fifty posters and photographs from years of Taylor performances all over the world. In between, eight glass encased tables displayed various examples of his handwritten poems and scores, while four video monitors continuously played a multitude of concert footage.

On the night of April 14, the western half of the gallery was filled to capacity with an audience of more than 700 in anxious anticipation of a rare performance by Taylor. A half an hour after the advertised 8 p.m. starting time, a Whitney staffer informed the apprehensive crowd that in addition to the scheduled performance with longtime collaborators Min Tanaka (a dancer) and Tony Oxley (drums), there would be a second show with what was described as the “New Unit.” Shortly thereafter, a seemingly frail Taylor was escorted to his signature Bösendorfer grand looking out on to the Hudson River.

Once seated at the piano, Taylor’s apparent frailty vanished as he plucked out a Monkish phrase, complemented by Oxley’s ambient electronics. Tanaka began his deliberate dance off stage left. Moving to the bandstand, the dancer first gesticulated rigidly behind Oxley, and then strode across the stage with wraithlike fluidity to present himself to the pianist.

Thus began a truly remarkable encounter in sound and motion between the two iconoclasts, with each one reacting to the other with uncanny diligence—Taylor modulating between delicacy and bombast, while Tanaka danced with alternate grace and fitfulness. For 50 minutes the two performed as one unit, with Oxley’s electronics contributing occasional flourishes.

The concert’s second segment with the New Unit found Taylor following the opening half’s measured intensity with freewheeling energy. Taking complete control of the music, he pounded the keyboard with the characteristic potency that has long burst from his virtuoso technique, with intervals of delicacy, most often complementing the spoken words of spoken-word artist Jane Grenier Balgochian, or bowed strings of cellist Tristan Honsinger and bassist Albey Balgochian.

For the bulk of the 45-minute performance, the pianist played explosively with Jackson Krall drumming, driving the collective improvisations of saxophonists Bobby Zankel, Elliott Levin and Harri Sjöström in a tour de force display of unparalleled commitment and strength.

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