Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith at National Sawdust

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December 20, 2016 at National Sawdust

At National Sawdust, wunderkind Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith take the stage for a bare, abstract jazz set. The setup is simple: a grand piano, electric keyboard, laptop and an effects box for Iyer, and a single trumpet played by Smith, who alternates timbre by selectively muting his horn’s bell flair throughout.

The set begins with an unconscious nod to Jega’s ‘Inertia,’ a minimal and ruminative melody providing the bed for Smith’s piercing trumpeting. This is jazz stripped to its bare essentials; lacking a rhythm section, the music is naked compared to most lineups, its stark nature always in danger of unwinding at the seams. The duo explores the sonic spaces outlined by this bare configuration, but that doesn’t mean the music is calm. In fact, at many points it is chaotic, with Iyer roaming up and down the keys with abandon, only to anchor himself within some internal beat. Smith spends most of the set crouched over, as if bowled over by the inherent magnitude of his instrument.

As one might discern, it’s not easy listening. When musicians choose to strip away any kind of beat in favor of a freeform void on which to paint, it risks losing many listeners. No matter how abstract, a beat – especially one in 4/4 time – provides a skeleton, at least some sort of cohesive thread listeners use as a life preserver to follow the development of melodies, the introduction and recession of arrangements, the swelling and diminution of dynamics. The duo of Iyer and Smith eschews most of this, relegating themselves to the outer limits, a leftfield zone concerned with only the interplay of the two instruments. It’s a commendable goal, but one in which Iyer’s sometimes random piano doodling pushes the limits of this form of abstract expressionism. Paring the set down to only several elements makes the experience somewhat repetitious, only minimally tempered by the inclusion of samples from Iyer’s laptop. These, it should be said, greatly benefit from National Sawdust’s acoustics – house speakers are strategically placed around the space to saturate listeners in fully environmental sound.

Still, there are moments where the duo gels. The set is reminiscent of this year’s Statea from Murcof, a collaboration with pianist Vanessa Wagner. The more abstract aspects of Miles Davis’ career also come to mind, particularly the searching minimalism of “Sanctuary,” though Iyer and Smith’s intention tonight are to stretch out and slow down even further. Listen with an open mind and you’ll be challenged, but also rewarded.

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