When I first heard that pianist/composer Myra Melford was working on a project whose inspiration was the Memory of Fire trilogy by Uruguayan author Eduardo Galeano, the blood rushed to my ears in anticipation of what I would hear. A masterwork of profound scholarship and imagination, Memory of Fire presents a highly refracted history of the Americas in short, vivid entries drawn from indigenous myths and memories and from written accounts by those who found their way to the New World and stayed—a hemispheric diary that stretches from pre-Columbian civilizations into the 20th century. Inspired by the trilogy, Melford created a multimedia piece, Language of Dreams, that illuminates Galeano’s words with music, video, dance, and recitation. The 10 tracks on Snowy Egret (Enja/Yellowbird) present an instrumental version of most of that music, with the same stunning band assembled for the original project—Ron Miles (trumpet), Liberty Ellman (guitar), Stomu Takeishi (bass), and Tyshawn Sorey (drums). Pulling from a musical palette that includes East Indian, African, European, and Latin and Northern American influences, the wizard Melford has created an exceptional work whose scholarship and imagination are worthy of the book that inspired it.
Melford’s structures are as vivid, concise, and faceted as Galeano’s entries, and her music is as occasionally hallucinatory as his writing. The compositions are not particularly programmatic, but there is a coefficient of drama in each. The music may have been inspired by Galeano, but it is uniquely Melford’s—nimble, profound, and surprising—and does not rely in any way on knowledge of the book. Similarly, her solo effort last year, Life Carries Me This Way (reviewed here), was created from a sustained synesthesia in response to a collection of paintings, but the listener does not need to see the artwork to appreciate the music.
Several of the tunes build on brief rhythmic cells that stick in your ear the way children’s
playground chants do. For example, Galeano’s entry “The Promised Land” chronicles the
wandering of a ragtag group of prehistoric Indians in search of home. Melford drives them on with a needling rhythmic figure against abstract funk as they hunt for the site on which to build their great city, Tenochtitlán.
The entire opening track, “Language,” builds on another simple rhythmic cell—it’s a kind of Melford fingerprint—as does “First Protest.” Ellman, who is new to me and welcome to grace the stereo system anytime, uses them to launch his solos on both tunes, and Melford’s comping behind him on “Language” is worth the price of admission. Ellman’s percussive, marimba-like approach at the beginning of his solo on “Ching Ching/For Love of Fruit” is inspired.
He opens “Night of Sorrow” solo, and Melford enters under him with a delicate chordal melody that pierces the heart. Her bluesy solo over bass and drums, framed by Miles’ trumpet at
beginning and end, expands your capacity for grief.
Speaking of Miles, how many other trumpeters play that instrument with the grace and nuance that he brings? The man can slow time—not tempo, but time itself—with breath and brass, and he deepens every moment he touches.
Takeishi and Sorey anchor the proceedings, and their finest moments may come on “The Kitchen.” Takeishi conducts an eloquent conversation with Ellman early on, and Sorey’s firestorm introduces and completes the tune. Check out Melford’s solo on this one. It would have been impossible had Thelonious Monk not been born, but it’s all Melford—and oh! her block chords. This is the most furious piece on the album, and I doubt I’ll ever volunteer to help out with food preparation at her house.
Takeishi opens the very next track, “Times of Sleep and Fate,” with an East Indian–accented solo. It may be the most sheerly beautiful tune on the album, unless that honor should go to “The Virgen of Guadalupe,” which opens with an achingly lyrical statement from Miles. On “Virgen,” Melford captures the breathless, hair-standing-straight-up wonder of divine light cracking the surface of the ordinary.
The album is rounded out with “Little Pockets/Everybody Pays Taxes,” tense from the get-go, and the closing track, “The Strawberry,” which combines a gospel-inflected piano with a Cuban-inflected ensemble.
Snowy Egret is a trip away from the ordinary on the wings of Melford’s artistry. She draws on many influences, but with them, she gives voice to a singular and compelling vision that is hers alone. No other music sounds remotely like hers, and I imagine that her band mates could hardly believe their good fortune to have been handed such satisfying compositions.
What extraordinary ears these musicians have. They seem to glide through this music,
connected to it by a light, elastic tether but free to move in the currents of the moment. If there is anything that jazz has taught us, it’s the infinite malleability of music, the moment’s countless possibilities, and these musicians are open to everything the moment has to offer.
© 2015 Mel Minter. All rights reserved.