It wasn’t long ago that the notion of “the avant-garde” in art meant a kind of ugliness. This is always subjective, of course: one person’s ugly is another person’s revelation of beauty. But in jazz, the avant-garde was long-marked by the expansion of harmonic freedoms, so newer, “freer” jazz was certainly less consonant and “pretty” than traditional jazz.
By 1980, however, when pianist Myra Melford got interested in jazz, there was already a form of jazz that combined delicacy and beauty with a certain kind of avant-garde advancement. The jazz/folk group Oregon had recorded a body of work that used free improvisation, folk delicacy, and world music rhythms. And Manfred Eicher was recording both European and American players who managed to invent truly new music without making listeners want to reach for aspirin. Listen to Dave Holland’s “Conference of the Birds” from the 1972 ECM disc of the same name for a perfect example.
Melford’s music with her Be Bread ensemble extends that legacy. Combining acoustic guitar (Brandon Ross), piano or harmonium (Melford), trumpet (Cuong Vu), clarinet (Ben Goldberg), bass (Stomu Takeishi), and drums (Matt Wilson), the band is capable of both delicacy and controlled cacophony. As a pianist, Melford has a gentle and swinging touch, not to mention a feeling for melody. And as a composer and arranger, she favors open melodies with an Indian flavor played with lilt and charm. Yet it is also true that Be Bread allows every player to take every appropriate liberty. This is “out” music that knows how to be “in”.
The Whole Tree Gone is the second recording by this band, and it is a dynamic and daring piece of lyricism. Vu and Goldberg form a sonorous front line for Melford’s melodies. Their unison passages are seamless, and they often combine with Ross’s plucked acoustic lines in harmony. The clarinet casts an Eastern European shadow over certain sections, as on parts of “Through the Same Gate”, and Vu’s trumpet alternately evokes the tradition of Kenny Dorham and the sonic experiments of Don Cherry.
The rhythm section tends to a lovely, skipping kind of modern swing. On “Moon Bird”, Melford starts with a knotty solo piano section that seems to be leading us toward real difficulty. Yet when Ross comes in with his plucking and then Takeishi and Wilson begin their characteristic lope, a sense of pleasant safety is with you. Regardless of how free certain individual playing becomes, the rhythm section tends to a naturally pleasing gait. During Vu’s most daring solo, chock-a-block with harmonic daring, Wilson, Takeishi, and Ross keep matters skipping.
“The Whole Tree Gone” uses many of the hip syncopations and the driving, jagged swing you might associate with more traditional jazz, such as the kind of music Blue Note recorded in the ’50s and ’60s. But then it breaks down into a Melford/Goldberg duet that veers toward modern classical music. “I See a Horizon” contains elements of a traditional Latin jazz track, but it also defies its own stylistic clarity over time. These tracks show Be Bread at its best — fully capable of playing in several styles at once and therefore wholly beyond category or style.
The secret ingredient, often, is Brandon Ross’s dry and cutting guitar sound. Heard recently on Henry Threadgill’s latest record, Ross seems the least tied to jazz history and also the least equipped to shriek and grunt like a sonic rebel. His instrument’s sound is friendly and inviting, often played in enjoyable patterns (“Horizon”), but it is also tart (“On the Lip of Insanity”) and bluesy (“Night”). In every case, it lends the sound of difference to Be Bread — a little bit gentle and whole lot interesting.
Cuong Vu also continues to develop as a distinctive voice. Though he has recently been playing with the Pat Metheny Group, Vu is a trumpeter with a puckish sense of humor and a true freedom of tone and attack. Melford’s compositions give him plenty of solo space, and the harmonic content is plenty rich even as he veers away from it.
Melford’s playing is perhaps underestimated. Her tunes and leadership could be seen as enough, but she is also a powerful pianist. Her ragged but directed playing on “Knock from the Inside” makes a case for her as both a mainstream player and an explosive free player. In three minutes, Melford traces piano jazz from Monk-ish bop to slithering post-bop to the kind of controlled craziness once perfected by Don Pullen. Melford rolls her fists across the keys to create smears and then bangs away a bit to generate a wholly percussive sound. All of it, amazingly, serves the tunes themselves and carries forward a plain sense of melodicism.
The Whole Tree Gone is daring but joyous music — something as substantive as any hardcore avant-garde record, yet pleasing in nearly every way. Myra Melford, slowly but certainly in the last five years, has staked a claim to being one of the best of a new breed. She makes jazz feel fresh again, but she never makes the listener feel cheap in the process.
This is her best disc, and it is one heck of a way to kick off jazz’s new year. My own resolutions involve hearing more music of genuine quality. Whole Tree makes that portion of my year’s labor not just easy but a great pleasure.