It’s hard to believe that last night marked pianist Myra Melford‘s debut as a bandleader at the Village Vanguard. She’s won so many awards and fellowships and such that it was easy to assume that she’d already done that…until a persuasive publicist prompted a serious twist-my-arm moment. On a raw, nippy, pleasantly almost tourist-free night, with probably as much jazz talent there watching as there was onstage, this show was a no-brainer. Beyond pure unleashed fun, the early set last night made a case for how the music Tonic was booking fifteen years ago has become…well…the vanguard.
Melford and her group Snowy Egret delivered pretty much everything you could possibly want from an improvising ensemble. There were all manner of pairings, and duels, and conversations between instruments. Acoustic bassist Satoshi Takeishi’s devious leaps and bounds against drummer Tyshawn Sorey’s whispery poltergeist cymbals; guitarist Liberty Ellman’s good purist postbop cop vs. Melford’s deadpan minimalist recidivist; and cornetist Ron Miles’ tug-of-war with the piano, employing all sorts of elephantine extended technique versus Melford’s resolutely glistening undercurrent, were just a few examples.
It’s one thing to listen to the group’s album while multitasking. Immersed in those songs live, Melford’s multifaceted erudition was stunning. For one, the Afro-Cuban influence is everywhere, particularly in the rhythm, if frequently implied.. Sorey and Takeishi would typically build to a rumbling, floating swing as the songs’ long crescendos rose to the point where Melford and her merry band would take things thisclose to haywire but hanging back from complete pandemonium, then typically following a graceful downward arc, typically punctuated by a friendly bit of jousting or repartee between soloists.
Many of Melford’s compositions have an ornate, multi-segmented architecture, and this group is a propulsive vehicle for that. The most stunning moment of the set was a plaintively rippling, minor-key neoromantic piano theme over a stygian swirl about midway through the third number, The Virgin of Guadalupe, one of a handful of tunes from the group’s 2015 album. Other moments gave Melford a chance to air our her signature blend of vivid lyricism, knottily looping phrases and cleverly deconstructed swing And later, for about twenty seconds, she finally took the night’s single downward spiral through bluesy cocktail jazz – the kind that Dave Brubeck insisted that every pianist would eventually devolve to – as if to say, “I can do this in my sleep, but I don’t, and that’s why we’re all here.”
Melford and Snowy Egret are back at the Vanguard with sets at 8:30 and 10:30 tonight and through March 6. Cover is $30.