Myra Melford’s Be Bread’s Return

Myra Melford — The Whole Tree Gone (Firehouse 12, 2010)

I’ve always liked Myra Melford‘s music, but The Whole Tree Gone is particularly crisp and exciting, mixing the briskness of her early albums with a polished, cinematic style.

(And you can hear it all live in Berkeley on Jan. 27 — the band’s playing at the Freight & Salvage that night. I’ve yet to see the new F&S building at 2020 Addison. Anybody got a report on what it’s like?)

The new album is with Melford’s band, Be Bread, which made its debut on The Image of Your Body (Cryptogramophone, 2006). That album was built on the perky jazz that Melford was known for in the mid-’90s — Cuong Vu‘s trumpet is a particularly handy tool there.  But it was also part of a developing phase born of Melford’s studies in India, an earthiness that’s especially drawn out when she plays the harmonium, a hand-pumped, accordion-like instrument. The track “Be Bread,” bearing the band’s name, echoes the happy sounds of a bazaar, with busy strings and airy harmonium chugging forward to the rhythm.

The Whole Tree Gone opens with something different, though. “Through the Same Gate” is propelled by some solid, clean piano chords, but Ben Goldberg‘s clarinet (a welcome addition) and Brandon Ross‘ acoustic guitar, along with  pillow-puff bass lines from Stomu Takeishi, create a comforting, organic setting: Italian villas with vine-covered porticos everywhere.

Most of the album goes for more of a modern jazz motif– lots of acoustic guitar, love the sound of those strings! — with Melford dishing the occasional piano frenzy. The title track includes some stretches of free ecstacy, with the whole group playing as piano notes rain down around them. It also ends on a strong, pulsing riff that’s got a very, well, very Melford-like sound. The core personality is there, but it lives in expanded surroundings.

The track I really want to point out isn’t one of the obvious ones, not one that might grab you immediately. It’s “Night,” which travels at a slow pace but has a tough, persistent intensity, right from the start. It’s pretty, but it’s also a moody, meaty piece, and I really like the Metheny-like wide landscape feeling that builds in the first half, like setting a stage. The song rewards the patient by building in intensity, leading up to a soft-crash of a crescendo; the band rides through the high-water mark like a boat casually riding an ocean swell.

There’s a similarity there to “Lace,” a slower-yet-tough track on Ben Goldberg’s Go Home. (And like “Night,” it’s that album’s third track.) “Lace” isn’t the fastest, catchiest, or funkiest song on the album, but damned if I don’t keep coming back to it.

It’s the newness of the sound that impresses me on The Whole Tree Gone. There’s a lot here that’s fresh, that provides new contexts for Melford’s dry-crackle style of free-jazz piano, and it seems to help push her solos to new edges.  The pieces have had the benefit of years of performance, with this band and others, and the result does feel like a finished (yet expandable) body of work.

Other tracks of note include “Moon Bird” (an 11-minute piece with some lovely composing that tests new harmonic ideas), and “I See a Horizon” (which has more of an old-school Melford sound).