With a career that was essentially born in New York City’s Knitting Factory scene of the late ’80s and early ’90s, pianist and composer Myra Melford has long stood outside the jazz mainstream. Since then, her broad-ranging interests (including a close study of Indian music), virtuoso piano chops and collaborative insight have made her a shining light of the avant-garde.
Her second album with her Snowy Egret project — bassist Stomu Takeishi, guitarist Liberty Ellman, cornetist Ron Miles and drummer Tyshawn Sorey — brings the strengths of her approach into high relief: supple compositions animated by the tension between form and freedom, informed by sensitive playing all around. Though there are great featured moments for each player, the emphasis isn’t on solos, but rather on the compositions and on the band’s interactions, wherever they might lead.
Though Melford’s pieces don’t generally fall into standard song form, they do have structure, often marked by lyric tunefulness, riffing rhythmic energy and patterns of call and response. On The Other Side of Air, pieces like “Attic,” “Dried Print on Cardboard” and “Small Thoughts” are bookended by their spiky unison themes. “Motion Stop Frame” implies an Afro-Latin groove, set in motion by Takeishi. From these themes, beautifully calibrated counterlines carry the music forward, with space for out-of-tempo explorations. In these passages, the quicksilver responsiveness of the musicians to one another sustains narrative tension. So, even though Miles’ cornet takes the lead in the outer excursions of “Motion Stop Frame,” it’s the incidental commentary by the other players, voicing queries and assent, that makes this a compelling five-way conversation. Similarly, a gently questing eight-note figure carries one soloist to the next on “Other Side of Air II.”
It’s clear that, no matter how carefully written, a Melford piece isn’t a complete composition until it’s been performed. That truism holds for every kind of improvised music, inside the mainstream or out.— Jon Garelick