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 later 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.