“Vijay Iyer: A Portrait” Review: MusicNOW celebrates Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith following their performance at the Harris Theater, November 13, 2017; Photo by Todd Rosenberg
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On November 13, 2017, Composer-pianist Vijay Iyer, a 2013 MacArthur Fellow and 2012, 2015 and 2016 Downbeat Artist of the Year, debuted at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance, 205 E. Randolph Dr., Chicago, as part of the second concert of the MusicNOW series, entitled “Vijay Iyer, a Portrait”.

Of the highly acclaimed Iyer, Nate Chinen for the New York Times has written, “To the extent that he has stood between world- bridging academic and real-world concerns, the avant-garde and the mainstream, composition and improvisation- he’s in a position to close the distance between them, and largely on his own terms.”

Joining Iyer for the second half of the program was 2017 Downbeat Artist & Trumpeter of the Year Wadada Leo Smith. Smith, composer, multi-instrumentalist and trumpet virtuoso, working primarily in the fields of avant-jazz and free improvisation, was one of three finalists for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize in Music for Ten Freedom Summers.

The program, featuring musicians from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, was introduced by Samuel Adams and Elizabeth Ogonek, current  Mead Composers-in-Residence, and included the following two pieces of music:

Vijay Iyer Time, Place, Action, for piano and string quartet, 2014

Featuring Baird Dodge, violin; Hermine Gagné, violin; Danny Lai, viola; Joshua Zajac, cello; Vijay Iver, piano

Dedicated to the late American poet Amiri Baraka, this piece “blurs the distinction between improvisation and notated composition.” Iyer seemed to make instantaneous choices as he was performing in dialogue with the string ensemble performers.

The first two movements are strong and clarion-clear. Iyer develops a relentless harmonic feeling that conveys a sense of science fiction among the Titans. The strings produce a welter of sound- both in and out of unison-and the piano leads with a series of flowing, almost unworldly chromatics. Then, a dreamy divergence occurs, seemingly endless harmonic innovations leading into a final movement of progressively tempo-straddling chords.

Trumpeter and composer Wadada Leo Smith at the Harris Theater on November13, 2017; Photo by Todd Rosenberg

 Iyer & Smith A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke, 2016

All Becomes Alive

The Empty Mind Receives


A Divine Courage

Uncut Emeralds

A Cold Fire

Notes on Water

 Featuring Vijay Iyer, piano, Fender Rhodes, Electronics, and Wadada Leo Smith, trumpet

 Pitchfork” called the duo’s 2016 album A Cosmic Rhythm with Each Stroke “…a frequently gorgeous, sometimes-rolling set that plays to both musicians’ strengths.”

This performance was comprised of the 7-part suite of the same title as the album, and included Iyer’s expansive piano playing on Fender Rhodes and Steinway Grand, his wonky electronics, and Smith’s often downward-facing sensual extended trumpet passages. Beginning with a soulful trumpet fanfare, Iyer’s melodic free-jazz fingering ranged widely from the lyrical to the dissonant as the 2 artists communicated well and intimately with a strong jazzy undercurrent and a keen poetic inflection. The piece unfolds with very expressive augmented piano chords and the trumpet reaching higher and retreating lower with quiet periods and complex interactions.

The 2 performers shared a commonality of improvisation, joining and separating yet maintaining an emotional connection in this interesting music, frequently sounding like an extended improvisatory meditation.

The next MusicNOW performance will be April 2, 2018 at 7 PM at the Harris Theater and will feature a world premiere, by Chicago native Amy Beth Kirsten, Savior, a work of music, movement and theater, based on the life of Joan of Arc.

For tickets to MusicNOW and all the fine programs of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, go to the CSO website.

All photos by Todd Rosenberg



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