Myra Melford’s Snowy Egret: The Other Side of Air review – kaleidoscopic improv workout

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When a smart musical original with a Guggenheim award and a raft of international poll-winnings to her credit calls a band something as fanciful as Snowy Egret, you suspect that it wasn’t out of sheer caprice. Considering the Bay Area composer/pianist Myra Melford’s music can turn from beguiling themes and inviting swing to dissonances and jagged anti-grooves in a blink, a snowy egret feels like too graceful and ghostly a creature to fit. But Wikipedia observes that snowy egrets (familiar sights in Melford’s California) “feed while standing, walking, running, or hopping”. At that, it all makes sense.

Melford, a pianist fascinated by improvisation from childhood, was drawn toward such key 1980s figures of the African American jazz avant garde as Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill, who showed her a world of new compositional principles often investigated by improv virtuosi just as happy with no structures at all. Those experiences (and a technique influenced by Cecil Tayloresque Charles Mingus pianist Don Pullen) has guided a true original’s spirit in Melford for over 25 years. The Other Side of Air, featuring sometime Bill Frisell partner Ron Miles on cornet and the articulate Liberty Ellman on guitar, is a musical slideshow of ducking-and-diving trumpet/guitar themes that the leader’s crisp piano rejoinders snap at the heels of, jostling improvised polyphonies, wistful, faintly Keith Jarrett-like piano meditations turning to brittle free-improv and percussive chord-themes that become bright, hoppy tunes. Visionary drummer Tyshawn Sorey is a vital force, Ellman’s lissom long lines and scurrying chords are constantly fresh, and the gentlest of closing codas reveals a complex venture with a shapely story arc, despite so many of its elements being left to chance. Melford always knows where she’s headed, but she doesn’t need to keep talented partners on a tight leash to get there.

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