As Myra Melford continues to challenge herself with new ensembles and approaches to composing, the opportunities to hear her as a 'session player' grow rarer. And in fact, the pianist has spent most of her career as a leader, so these new discs offer an uncommon glimpse into Melford as improviser and group member.
Under the Water is a particularly pleasant surprise, a piano duo by Melford and Satoko Fujii that has everything one could want from such a meeting: each of their sensibilities are distinctly present, but they persevere in creating a common platform as well, finding something new yet recognizable from the perspective of either player. And each also plays a solo piece (both diplomatically about 12 minutes).
The disc opens with some unexpected extended playing inside the case before the first melodies emerge. Before the first 10 minutes are up, tempi and tonality have become malleable, yet the two are always quick to follow each other. Fujii's solo piece, "Trace a River," is delicately played, with sliding and muted strings falling alongside heavy motifs. It's hard not to read Melford's "Be Melting Snow" in light of her Rumi ruminations on Be Bread and it has a parallel way of creating and reworking jumping themes. The disc closes with a joint improvisation that encapsulates the previous reflective-while-explosive 45 minutes.
While Alex Cline's Continuation takes a very different approach, composed for quintet as opposed to improvised duo, there's a similar aesthetic. There is a meditative quality to the music, yet it refuses to be held to any one mold. The inspirations gleaned from artwork and dedications suggest a project borne of life and loss, although Cline offers no thesis statement for the project. The opening "Nourishing Our Roots" is a lush lament featuring Jeff Gauthier's violin and Peggy Lee's cello against a drone from Melford's harmonium. While the ensemble could have carried that trance for the whole of the disc, it is instead taken as a mood to depart from and return to, interspersed with smart jazzy themes, percussion experiments and some unexpected uprisings.
"Steadfast" opens with a rolling 90-second drum solo and then spends another 10 minutes projecting the ensemble, with suggested melody lines and polyrhythms, onto the percussion. "On the Bones of the Homegoing Thunder" is a circling storm anchored by Scott Watson's bass, quiet and foreboding interrupted by a sprightly Melford piano solo, then passing again. Solos and synchronous themes approach and retreat with alarming elasticity, ranging wildly yet remaining cohesive. It's a remarkable 19 minutes. The disc ends with a lovely epilogue, "Open Hands (Receive, Release)," bringing the quiet back to the realm of peace.
My Fingers Will Be Your Tears finds Melford in another drummer-led ensemble for an exciting, challenging session with Andrew Drury and Briggan Krauss. Drury's compositions are nicely inventive, using percussionist sensibilities as a springboard for multiple voices. The title track has all the members freely interpreting a drum score, leaving tempo and pitch to individual interpretation, creating a mysterious yet distinct thread through the piece. Likewise, "The Band is a Drum Set" takes melodies found in recordings of Max Roach drum breaks and transposes them to melody instruments. Both pieces, and Drury's approach to bandleading as a whole, put a tight focus on the piano as a percussion instrument, which Melford embraces. Drury's challenges stoke flames from Krauss's saxophone, but also bring out the most energetic playing from Melford heard here.
Tracks and Personnel
Under the Water
Yadokari; Trace a River; The Migration of Fish; Be Melting Show; Utsubo.
Personnel: Satoto Fujii and Myra Melford: pianos.
Tracks: Nourishing Our Roots; Clearing Our Streams; Fade to Green; Steadfast; SubMerge; On the Bones of the Homegoing Thunder; Open Hands (Receive, Release).
Personnel: Jeff Gauthier: violin; Peggy Lee: cello; Myra Melford: piano, harmonium; Scott Walton: bass; Alex Cline: percussion kantele.
My Fingers Will Be Your Tears
Tracks: The Band Is a Drum Set; Interlude; Gleaners; Improvisation; Skara Brae; My Fingers Will Be Your Tears; Keep the Fool II.
Personnel: Briggan Krauss: alto saxophone; Myra Melford: piano; Andrew Drury: drums.