Is it fair to call pianist Myra Melford a cult artist? Her music is so full of life, and tunes, and ideas and color that spans the emotional spectrum. In the NYC downtown jazz scene, she’s iconic, a status she earned in the 90s before she hightailed it for a UC/Berkeley professorship. She’s got a weeklong stand at the Stone starting this Tuesday, March 24 with sets at 8 and 10 PM and continuing through the 29th; cover is $15. There are too many enticing sets to list here: the 8 PM duo shows with whirlwind drummer Allison Miller on the 24th and then with clarinetist Ben Goldberg on the 25th ought to be especially good for completely different reasons. There’s also a reunion of her playful Be Bread sextet on the 26th at 10 and a quintet show with trumpet luminary Dave Douglas the following night, also at 10 – and that’s just for starters.
Melford’s latest album, due out on the 24th, is Snowy Egret with the band of the same name: Ron Miles on cornet, Liberty Ellman on guitar, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Tyshawn Sorey on drums. For a taste of the album – since it’s not out yet – give a listen to the final cut, The Strawberry, which hints that it’s going to be a boogie-woogie number before Melford takes it to Havana – and Sorey’s drumming is funny beyond words in places. Ellman’s biting circularities kickstart a series of divergences before Melford pulls everybody back on the rails.
As for the rest? There’s humor and irony, and a frequently dancing pulse. A handful of numbers seem to allude to the first age of imperialism in the Americas and the centuries of havoc in its wake. The first track, Language, pulses along as shuffling variations on a fanfare riff bookending a typically soulful, clear-as-the-Denver-sky Miles solo. An expansively spiky, spare Ellman solo opens Night of Sorrow, the band plaintively filling in around Melford’s spaciously elegaic, bluesy motives. Promised Land delivers some wry shout-and-response and divergent tangents within its syncopated staccato bounce.
Ching Ching For Love of Fruit – a slot machine reference, it seems – moves from a mournful muted trumpet/melodica duet between Miles and Melford to an unexpectedly carnivalesque theme, Takeishi mimicking a tuba and Sorey rattling his hardware. Likewise, The Kitchen opens with picturesque pots-and-pans drollery from Sorey, Miles and Ellman having lots of fun spinning plates and such before Takeishi makes it funky, then Melford takes it on a clenched-teeth, uh-oh trajectory.
Takeishi’s growling attack and Ellman’s fluttery unease pair with Melford’s lingering foreshadowing and Miles’ resonance throughout Times of Sleep and Fate, a tone poem of sorts that builds to a brooding, AACM-inflected majesty. Little Pockets – Everybody Pays Taxes sees the band taking some aptly squirrelly cinematics in a considerably more ominous, insistent direction: whatever you do, don’t answer the door!
First Protest works a rhythmically dizzying marionette theme, Sorey and Ellman leading the charge along a twisted second line parade route. The Virgin of Guadalupe, the album’s most expansive and moodiest track, pairs Miles’ funereal lines with Melford’s understatedly plaintive neoromantic precision, building toward a bitter bolero. Of all the cuts here, it comes closest to being the definitive one, spacious and pensive and quietly packing a wallop.