One of the best recordings I’ve heard this year.
Myra Melford is one of the most interesting and underrated pianists in jazz today. Her work is both ambitious and accessible, full of bright, intense rhythms and complex harmonies. Yet she has remained at jazz’s margins. After participating in the downtown New York jazz subculture of the ’80s and ’90s and spending a year in India thanks to a Fulbright Scholarship in 2000, she relocated to Berkeley, Calif., teaching at the University of California and performing in the Bay Area.
Her work is on par with more celebrated players’, such as trumpeter Dave Douglas, pianist Jason Moran and saxophonist Joe Lovano, but she doesn’t do the things that enhance a jazz pianist’s profile. She hasn’t recorded a collection of classic repertoire, nor has she covered contemporary pop and rock tunes. Instead, she’s created works that take inspiration from the essay “The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus and the novel “The Woman in the Dunes” by Kobo Abe. The music on her new recording, “Snowy Egret” (Enja/Yellowbird), which is also the name of her newest band, is inspired by the “Memory of Fire” trilogy by the Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano.
In addition, starting Tuesday, she will perform for six nights at the Stone in New York, in a variety of different ensembles. The engagement amounts to a retrospective, as it will feature many of the bands she has led during her diverse career. Some of the highlights include performances by her sextet, Be Bread; two performances each by her quintets The Same River Twice and Snowy Egret; and a reunion of her trio from 25 years ago. A full schedule of concerts is at http://www.thestonenyc.com.
Ms. Melford, who is 58, was born in Evanston, Ill., and grew up in a Frank Lloyd Wright home there. That seems to inform her music, which is strikingly well structured and intelligently arranged. It’s always easy to hear what each instrument is doing and appreciate the often changing rhythms. Although not a member of Chicago’s Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, Ms. Melford studied with Leroy Jenkins and Henry Threadgill, two of the musicians who figured prominently in the collective’s early days. Ms. Melford’s music shares the traits of many bands that emerged from the AACM. In her arrangements her use of space is similar to that of Air and Eight Bold Souls, while her willingness to use nontraditional jazz instruments mirrors, at a smaller scale, the Art Ensemble of Chicago.
Most of her ensembles feature unusual instrumental combinations, which yield unique harmonies. For instance, the members of Snowy Egret are drummer Tyshawn Sorey, guitarist Liberty Ellman, cornetist Ron Miles and bassist Stomu Takeishi.
The music on the recording is lean, lithe and appealing. There are numerous passages where the unisons of cornet and guitar are contrasted with the more conventional rhythms of drums and piano. Mr. Sorey and Ms. Melford’s rousing duet drives the recording’s opening track, “Language,” then the two give way to pithy solos by Mr. Ellman and Mr. Miles that are augmented by undulating drumbeats by Mr. Sorey and propulsive riffing by the leader. “Language” is an up-tempo track, but the band is just as adept at turning elegant, slower numbers like “Night of Sorrow” into equally compelling music. Mr. Sorey’s subdued drumming and Mr. Miles’s brassy murmurs underpin graceful solos by Ms. Melford and Mr. Ellman.
Two of the other highlights from the recording build on the blues, another early influence of Ms. Melford’s. “First Protest” begins with 90 seconds of warp-speed piano clusters and furious drumming that give way to a bass line from Mr. Takeishi that is an abstraction of a bluesy beat. The beginning of “The Strawberry” takes its cues from classic barrelhouse piano before deftly shifting into a stuttering beat that vaguely recalls Argentine tango.
Ms. Melford’s background is unusual among jazz musicians; she’s participated in the jazz scenes of the Midwest, East Coast and West Coast, and there are elements of each locale in her sound. Her lack of media recognition hasn’t slowed her. “Snowy Egret” is her 21st release as a leader, and she has more than double that number as a sidewoman. She was named a Guggenheim Fellow in 2013 and has won awards from the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation for her efforts in reworking the jazz program at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. Fortunately there is a growing awareness of Ms. Melford’s considerable gifts, even if recognition still hasn’t permeated the mainstream jazz community.
Mr. Johnson writes about jazz for the Journal.