New Releases From 2 Jazz Duos Reach for the Ineffable

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith.  (Courtesy John Rogers)

Jazz is an art form based on instrumental conversation, and no format makes this more nakedly clear than the duo. Two new albums capture some of jazz’s most creative musicians in intimate dialogues.

Vijay Iyer & Wadada Leo Smith

Pianist Vijay Iyer and trumpeter Wadada Leo Smith have recorded together in Smith’s Golden Quartet, but “A Cosmic Rhythm With Each Stroke” (ECM) is their first duo release together. These are two musicians who have scaled the heights.

Smith recently retired from his longtime position as a professor at Cal Arts in Valencia, and he’s been enjoying an amazingly productive late-career run. His epic four-disc album, “Ten Freedom Summers,” was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Music. And Iyer, who decided to pursue a career in music as a doctoral student in physics at UC Berkeley, is a professor at Harvard and leads one of jazz’s most exciting and acclaimed trios. But this project takes them both to a very different musical space.

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Austere and full of portentous stretches of silence, the album’s centerpiece is a seven-movement suite dedicated to the great Indian visual artist Nasreen Mohamedi, and there’s definitely a connection between the spaciousness and rhythmic patterns of her line drawings and the music. Iyer adds electronic textures on some of the more atmospheric pieces, but I particularly like when they knock up against each other, like on the third movement, “Labyrinths.”

Ross Hammond & Sameer Gupta

While both albums are animated by a probing spirituality, or a quest for the ineffable, Sacramento guitarist Ross Hammond and Brooklyn tabla player Sameer Gupta deliver a very different kind of duo sound with “Upward” (Prescott Records).

Where Iyer and Smith’s astringent music unfolds with meditative (or unsettling) calm, Hammond and Gupta’s improvisations are lush, buoyant and expansive.

Ross Hammond and Sameer Gupta.
Ross Hammond and Sameer Gupta.

Hammond is on 12-string acoustic guitar, which can sound like a sitar. The pieces are mostly improvised, influenced by the rhythmic cycles of classical Indian ragas, but not at all defined by those forms. Gupta got his start on the Bay Area scene as a drummer, and made a powerful impression with The Supplicants, an ecstatic jazz trio with bassist David Ewell and saxophonist David Boyce. He and Hammond have been collaborating in various settings for two decades, and "Upwards" unfolds like a free-flowing dialogue between old friends.

Both Hammond and Gupta are inveterate organizers. In Brooklyn, Gupta has helped spark a thriving Indian music scene with a weekly jazz-style jam session in a Prospect Park cowboy bar. And Hammond has painstakingly built up the improv music scene in California's capital as the co-founder of In the Flow Jazz and Improvised Music Festival and producer of a long-running concert series that brings in illustrious improvisers from around the country.

He’s also no stranger to guitar/drum duos. He’s recorded albums with tabla player Alex Jenkins (“The Ni Project”) and drummer Tom Monson (“V Neck”), and there’s been an album in the works with drummer Scott Amendola for several years (“Lovely Builders”). But all of those albums feature electric guitar and electronics, while “Upward” is entirely acoustic.

While Hammond and Gupta explore a wide array of moods, the album is beautifully cohesive. From the pastoral “When Kesslers Rage” and the aching and elegiac “For Chris Ferreira” to the playful “Farm to Tabla,” the music exists in a timeless realm that touches on jazz, Hindustani music, spirituals and country without residing in any particular style.

When he's pushed, Hammond describes himself as a folk musician, which fits fine. As Thelonious Monk told Bob Dylan, we all play folk music. Ultimately, the album feels like listening in on friends who aren’t in any rush to finish their conversation. They left me eagerly anticipating their next encounter.

Vijay Iyer and Wadada Leo Smith perform April 15 at Occidental College and April 16 at Cal State Fullerton.

 Sameer Gupta performs at the Red Poppy Art House in San Francisco with David Boyce in The Supplicants Duo on April 22, a Brooklyn Raga Massive showcase on April 24, and with Ross Hammond on April 29.