NEW YORK — Pianist Vijay Iyer warmly embraced trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith after the world premiere of their collaborative suite, "A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke,'' at the newly opened The Met Breuer, a piece inspired by the late Indian visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi whose works were exhibited several floors below.
The moment underscored Iyer's belief that "music can help transcend differences.'' The performance brought together two musicians of different generations and backgrounds: the 44-year-old Iyer, the son of Indian immigrants who grew up in upstate New York, and the 74-year-old Smith, whose roots are in the Mississippi Delta.
On their recently released studio recording of the suite and in the live performance, the two displayed an uncanny telepathy. Smith covered a full range on trumpet from whispered breaths to loud bursts, with Iyer switching smoothly from acoustic to electric piano and occasionally creating electronic sounds on a laptop.
Iyer has an unlikely back story for a musician who's been voted jazz artist of the year in Downbeat magazine's critics’ poll, received a MacArthur Foundation genius grant, and is a professor in Harvard's music department.
Largely self-taught on piano, he majored in physics and mathematics at Yale. At age 23, while pursuing his doctorate in physics at Berkeley, he took the risky decision to become a professional musician to his parents' bewilderment. He later received an interdisciplinary Ph.D. from Berkeley focusing on music and embodied cognition, or how the human body perceives music.
"I was a bit of a late bloomer and had a lot of catching up to do,'' said Iyer.
Iyer was inspired and encouraged by musicians like Anthony Braxton and Smith, who were involved in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, formed in the mid-'60s by musicians who mixed avant-garde jazz, contemporary and world music.
"Vijay is a sincere, creative artist, a very generous human being who is well-attuned to human feelings and emotions,'' said Smith, a 2013 Pulitzer Prize finalist for his civil rights opus "Ten Freedom Summers.''
Iyer played in Smith's Golden Quartet from 2005-2010, an experience he says "stretched me in a way that I hadn't really been before.'' They first performed as a duet in January 2015 and decided to make a record.
After Iyer became the 2015-16 artist-in-residence at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, curators introduced him to Mohamedi's work ahead of an exhibition opening the Met Breuer, a center for the museum's modern art program in the former home of the Whitney Museum of American Art.
The museum commissioned Iyer to compose the suite with Smith, and they recorded it for the ECM label in October. The titles of the suite and its seven movements are taken from phrases in Mohamedi's diaries.
"It was a beautiful thing that we could make a duo project in relation to the work of this incredible artist from India who's lesser known than she should be in the West,'' said Iyer, interviewed in a gallery displaying Mohamedi's geometric line-based drawings. "Her work is very spare, elegant and mysterious. It has a lot of order and geometry and patterns, and it also has a lot of space.''
Iyer was particularly struck by the precise, delicate drawings Mohamedi made in her later years as she struggled with a debilitating neurological disease that made it difficult to hold her pen.
"There's this field of energy behind each stroke, the cosmic rhythms,'' he said.
Limor Tomer, the Met's general manager of concerts and lectures, said she choose Iyer as the resident artist not only for his talents as a composer and pianist, but also for his "curiosity'' about collaborating with other artists.
Tomer says her expectations were exceeded by Iyer's three-week March residency titled "Relation'' in a ground floor gallery at the Met Breuer during which he performed with or presented 40 ensembles and soloists.
Iyer played with some of his regular ensembles, including his trio with bassist Stephan Crump and drummer Marcus Gilmore, who have been together since 2004, and Tirtha, with Indian guitarist Prasanna and tabla player Nitin Mitta. There were also collaborations with Nigerian-American novelist Teju Cole and the Punjabi-American rapper Heems (Himanshu Suri).
Iyer says the project brought together "artists who cut across disciplines, ethnic, racial and class backgrounds, and generations.''
"We tend to overemphasize the differences... and try to separate one kind of music from another. But music is much more fundamental than that. It doesn't really want to be separated,'' he said.