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Listening Post: Duets by Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith; new jazz by Henry Threadgill

Viyay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith, “a cosmic rhythm with each stroke” (ECM).

A singular and surprising tsunami of music from jazz’ outermost avant-garde masters is about to be issued in the next few weeks. This is, unquestionably, the most approachable and emotionally affecting – a duet from the great Amer-Indian pianist Vijay Iyer who was raised in Rochester, and trumpet master Wadada Leo Smith, one of the originals from Chicago’s legendary music collective AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians), which was born a half century ago.

Says pianist and electronicist Iyer in the notes “Wadada Leo Smith has been my hero, friend and teacher for two decades.” Iyer says the album’s title suite draws “inspiration” from “the works of Indian artist Nasreen Mohamed (1937-1990.) Her elegant abstract drawings, each a revelation of the infinite, resonate with clarity and purpose.” As do Smith’s emotionally powerful trumpet arias over Iyer’s piano, electric piano and electronic drones, throughout this record.

The closing piece, by Smith, was written in honor of the great contralto Marian Anderson. Iyer is hugely expressive throughout but it is Smith’s pure emotionalism and lyrical “purpose” that make the record so good.

Rating: 3.5 stars (out of 4)

Henry Threadgill and Ensemble Double Up, “Old Locks and Irregular Verbs” (Pi).

Jazz’ avant-garde discovered long ago that the 12-tone music and serialism that so long held sway in classical music had very little to offer jazz expressivity but that atonalism and constant dissonant counterpoint were very useful in jazz. Henry Threadgill, 72, is one of the great living figures in the jazz vanguard but he seems, of late, less interested in playing than composing. He composed all of this but doesn’t play on it, which leaves the star player here Jason Moran, one of the pianists. The two alto saxophonists, Roman Filiu and Curtis Macdonald, are fine and even more but neither up to Threadgill’s standard as a player.

This record is Threadgill’s tribute to his late friend, composer-conductor Butch Morris (who died in 2013), one of the lions of the jazz orchestra vanguard. Threadgill and Morris were once members of a David Murray Octet together and they lived near each other in the East Village. So, too, were they both Vietnam veterans.

Threadgill’s music here (which absolutely requires multiple listenings) uses two pianos, two alto saxophones, and tuba and cello along with drums. Despite the deeply emotional basis of the music, it only becomes deeply affecting in its final movement, about which alto saxophonist Macdonald says “it’s hauntingly beautiful and mournful and it left a profound affect on us from the first time we heard it in rehearsal ... Every time we reach the end of this piece, I’m always crying because it’s an emotional moment. Threadgill has always had an affinity for funeral bands and this becomes a powerful moment when Double Up becomes a funeral band.” The enormously powerful ending makes up for what might not connect in the previous movements.

Rating: 3 stars (out of 4).

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