PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.


Myra Melford and Be Bread: The Whole Tree Gone

The melodically free pianist presents her best-ever recording, crafting an accessible jazz adventure.

Myra Melford and Be Bread

The Whole Tree Gone

Label: Firehouse 12
US Release Date: 2010-01-19
UK Release Date: Import

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.





Is Carl Neville's 'Eminent Domain' Worth the Effort?

In Carl Neville's latest novel, Eminent Domain, he creates complexities and then shatters them into tiny narrative bits arrayed along a non-linear timeline.


Horrors in the Closet: Horrifying Heteronormative Scapegoating

The artificial connection between homosexuality and communism created the popular myth of evil and undetectable gay subversives living inside 1950s American society. Film both reflected and refracted the homophobia.


Johnny Nash Refused to Remember His Place

Johnny Nash, part rock era crooner, part Motown, and part reggae, was too polite for the more militant wing of the Civil Rights movement, but he also suffered at the hands of a racist music industry that wouldn't market him as a Black heartthrob. Through it all he was himself, as he continuously refused to "remember his place".


John Hollenbeck Completes a Trilogy with 'Songs You Like a Lot'

The third (and final?) collaboration between a brilliant jazz composer/arranger, the Frankfurt Radio Big Band, vocalists Kate McGarry and Theo Bleckman, and the post-1950 American pop song. So great that it shivers with joy.


The Return of the Rentals After Six Years Away

The Rentals release a space-themed album, Q36, with one absolute gem of a song.


Matthew Murphy's Post-Wombats Project Sounds a Lot Like the Wombats (And It's a Good Thing)

While UK anxiety-pop auteurs the Wombats are currently hibernating, frontman Matthew "Murph" Murphy goes it alone with a new band, a mess of deprecating new earworms, and revived energy.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 80-61

In this next segment of PopMatters' look back on the music of the 2000s, we examine works by British electronic pioneers, Americana legends, and Armenian metal provocateurs.


In the Tempest's Eye: An Interview with Surfer Blood

Surfer Blood's 2010 debut put them on the map, but their critical sizzle soon faded. After a 2017 comeback of sorts, the group's new record finds them expanding their sonic by revisiting their hometown with a surprising degree of reverence.


Artemis Is the Latest Jazz Supergroup

A Blue Note supergroup happens to be made up of women, exclusively. Artemis is an inconsistent outing, but it dazzles just often enough.


Horrors in the Closet: A Closet Full of Monsters

A closet full of monsters is a scary place where "straight people" can safely negotiate and articulate their fascination and/or dread of "difference" in sexuality.


'Wildflowers & All the Rest' Is Tom Petty's Masterpiece

Wildflowers is a masterpiece because Tom Petty was a good enough songwriter by that point to communicate exactly what was on his mind in the most devastating way possible.


Jazz Composer Maria Schneider Takes on the "Data Lords" in Song

Grammy-winning jazz composer Maria Schneider released Data Lords partly as a reaction to her outrage that streaming music services are harvesting the data of listeners even as they pay musicians so little that creativity is at risk. She speaks with us about the project.


The 100 Best Albums of the 2000s: 100-81

PopMatters' best albums of the 2000s begin with a series of records that span epic metal, ornate indie folk, and a terrifying work of electronic music.


The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.


'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.


1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.


'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.


The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.