So the heart of the record, this seven-part suite, is essentially improvised. There is no fixed score (as there is with the original pieces that bookend the suite), there is no structural framework that happens on cue during each performance. But you’ve said there are colors and emotional zones that you find each time. How do you then assess a performance? When can you tell that it “works”?
IYER: We are working with elements and ideas that are recurring, aspects you might recognize from one night to the next. I think of our work as creating a path each time, and of course that is very situational. It depends on the space we’re in, the people in the room. What’s confounding for people is that this approach is different from the desire for music as a fixed object. Wadada said something very wise about this once, in connection with [John Coltrane’s] A Love Supreme. When people try to play it, they usually imitate what Coltrane played. But if you look at the score, it’s a recipe for action. It’s bare, elemental. It just gives you a set of ingredients, to be mixed and developed and reworked. That’s the piece, not what’s on the page in terms of notes. The notes are an outline. Too often, the music world is obsessed with fixity – with repeatable stuff, whether it’s a melody or a four-measure loop. This piece challenges that – we’re suggesting that to appreciate it, you have to dislodge conventional notions about what a piece of music even means, what qualifies. In this creative process, we begin at the moment of performance by working with a set of materials that we’re also calling a composition. Even if those materials don’t go together quite the way they did when we recorded them. In a way, it requires you to literally deconstruct what you think of as a piece of music.
So, again, how do you know when you’ve succeeded?
IYER: I’ll say that each night has felt like its own breakthrough. A couple of weeks ago, we played in Poland. I remember thinking, while we were playing, that we were getting to something we hadn’t gotten before. Here we were working toward the same goal as always, and using some of the same elements and ideas. Still somehow the path was different. That is what happens sometimes when you are pinned to the present moment.
Let’s talk about attention. It seems increasingly difficult to captivate listeners for the kind of long journeys on A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke. Has that been your experience?
SMITH: I’d like to inform you that when we play, for some great reason, people listen. I think we’re bigger than iPhone 29 – maybe it’s something about the dispositions of people who are coming to hear us. At the same time, I’m aware that focus is a very important part of making great art.
IYER: I’d also just say that the music involves all of us. It connects us all, pins us to the moment we’re all in. It’s not like we’re just broadcasting something – we’re actually reflecting it.… I find that part of the process in creating is about listening to the audience. Assessing where they’re at. You can hear them breathing, you pick up restlessness. If that’s present it becomes a part of the dynamic. On the flip side, it’s really extraordinary when, for example, you hear the sound of people exhaling together. And you realize that the music brought them to that place. That’s what music is doing, it’s working on the body. Basically, our job is to be that conduit, so everyone feels taken care of.… And devices, whatever technology is at hand, that can not matter to us. When the newspaper was invented, that seemed like a distraction to people. Music, it’s been with us for 100,000 years, tapping into something that’s essential about us. We know it works.
SMITH: One time [Anthony] Braxton and I played at the cafeteria in the Art Institute in Chicago. That was the noisiest place. I mean loud. There were people scraping trays, all that. Even there, we had a few confirmations that people picked up what we were doing. I just think when it comes to the environment itself, we have to conquer that. It’s not free, it’s not automatic. You have to earn it.
Vijay, in several interviews you’ve described Wadada as a “hero” to you. Can you expand on that a bit?
IYER: When Wadada plays, something ancient is in the room. There’s a certain energy that is profoundly human, and reminds us of who or what we’ve always been. There’s something about it that’s grounding, and profoundly true. I find that a whole room will orient around the sound of his trumpet – people in the room have a transformative experience.
This is the “mutual admiration society” segment of the interview – Wadada, what do you take away from creating with Vijay?
SMITH: Seeing clarity for what it is. And thinking about and understanding the well being of another human while making art. It can be painful both physically and mentally. Sometimes after we are done playing, we’re both drenched in sweat and we hug and embrace. It’s know that a deep love that makes this possible. I’ve known Vijay a long time, and I’ve never understood how someone can be so generous as so young a man. I’m talking about music and also just as a human being. You don’t find a lot of people who can do that.
IYER: Can I add some more? I just feel lucky. A lot of different factors brought us together, and a lot of it seems beyond our immediate control. What Wadada has brought to my life is a lot of levels of awareness about how music works, how the world works, how the universe works. And how people can be present for each other – it’s a human kind of learning that’s about life. When you see him in teaching contexts, you understand it. Everything who interacts with him walks away with this glow, this activation – it’s confidence and also an affirmed sense of self. In an instant, he can imbue people with that. It just radiates from him.
Wadada Leo Smith and Vijay Iyer perform on Dec. 19 at 7:30pm at Harlem Stage (www.harlemstage.org), and on Dec. 20 at 7pm at National Sawdust (www.nationalsawdust.org).
Tom Moon has been writing about pop, rock, jazz, blues, hip-hop and the music of the world since 1983. He is the author of the New York Times bestseller 1000 Recordings to Hear Before You Die (Workman Publishing), and a contributor to other books including The Final Four of Everything. A saxophonist whose professional credits include stints on cruise ships and several tours with the Maynard Ferguson orchestra, Moon served as music critic at the Philadelphia Inquirer from 1988 until 2004.