Myra Melford
MYRA MELFORD / Photo: Bryan Murray / Courtesy of Fully Altered Media

JazzMatters: Best New Jazz and Creative Music – April 2022

Jazz critic Will Layman has been listening to classical piano and Afro-Cuban music in various forms. The best new jazz this month is also strong and extensive.


Myra Melford’s Fire and Water Quintet – For Love of Fire and Water (Rogue Art)

Myra Melford's Fire and Water Quintet - For Love of Fire and Water

The light and dancing quality of Myra Melford’s music never means that it sounds hemmed in or excessively pretty. With this band, she has assembled four other daring improvisers whose compositional sense is equally strong. The numbered but not-named portions of this suite emphasize that this is a whole piece of music rather than a set of songs, each with independent themes and “solos”.

The utmost strength of this session is the range and adaptability of each musician. percussionist Susie Ibarra is a “drummer”, yes, but her tuned mallet percussion is essential to the ballad theme of part “IV”; Tomeka Reid’s cello is plucked and bowed, pure of sound and strident as she chooses; saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock works more within ensembles (notated or improvised), matching sounds, rather than bull-dozing the band with wailing; and guitarist Mary Halvorson uses her various tonal tricks and pedal work like a surgeon or a sculptor. As you listen to the group improvisation of part “VI”, you are hearing five musicians sound like ripples on the surface of silence.

Perhaps I just have Cecil Taylor in my head this month, but the solo pianism at the start of parts “I” and “VII” would seem to be a nod to Taylor from an artist who has a very different sensibility but a similar affection for gradually assembling order from what could appear to be freedom. “VII” moves from improvised piano into a composed section with lurching, wide intervals stated a dash of syncopated funk that allow Halvorson and Laubrock the closest things to “jazz solos” that the suite has to offer. It’s really cool to hear them when they are just one of the many strategies the band has at hand.

The composed sections of For the Love of Fire and Water are as varied as any other part. “VII”‘s groove section is followed by a composed rhythm of handclaps on “VIII”. The theme that eventually emerges on the next track has a contrapuntal urgency that could have graced a late-Blue Note-era Wayne Shorter album, and its explosion into something like frenzy wonderfully ends in solo piano. Part “II” uses a hip melody arranged in octaves for guitar and soprano sax, juxtaposed with a second melody for cello and piano. And “X” is a gentle ballad theme that invites gorgeous, textural improvisation that even reminds me a bit of the band Oregon.

Finally, Fire and Water invites you to start it all over again, to hear the cycle of directed free playing and careful composition lined up a second time, a third time. Each part feels connected to the one before or after it by some kind of (dream) logic. There is never too much of any one voice, and you crave a little more Reid, a little more Halvorson, on and on. If Taylor’s 1973 comeback concert offered an overload of communication, motivic development, and musical data, the latest from Myra Melford manages to do something similar but in a way that under-loads our ears, inviting an immediate revisit.

Miles Okazaki’s Trickster – Thisness (Pi)

Miles Okazaki's Trickster - Thisness

This is the third outing from the guitarist’s supernova quartet with Matt Mitchell on keyboards and the Sean Rickman (drums)/Anthony Tidd (bass) rhythm section that comes from Steve Coleman’s bands but is now its own racing-heart thing. This time out, the band is playing in longer, more open improvisations but still working in its signature style, making rhythmically complex New Jazz that sounds less compositionally fancy-pants and more like an otherworldly jam band.

But, to be clear, this is not just a set of open jams. Okazaki has set up a series of small, sketch-like compositions, often sounding less like melody+harmony+groove than like melodic atmospheres with some written lines that intersect in each sketch’s town square. The members of the quartet move between these locations through a series of informal cues, creating a free-flowing sensation, a river journey. The musicians rarely take individual solos but improvise collectively, the guitar bobbing to the surface of “Years in Space”, for example, for a moment before Mitchell’s ripples of piano peak and lap over Okazaki. The give and take, the harmonically vague counterpoint, is almost always lush but takes a dive or two into being jagged. Both are wonderful, and in the moments where piano and guitar lock into written melodies the effect is a revelation.

Okazaki plays a small variety of guitars, acoustic and electric, and there is real warmth in the textures that are conjured. As you enjoy the lightly distorted sound of Okazaki on “I’ll Build a World”, you also get to enjoy Mitchell’s mixture of meaty synth and acoustic piano. Tidd always gets an unconventional sound on bass guitar – somehow guitar-like but always low, and Rickman tends to tune his drums for maximum melody. What results is orchestral. The band sounds like six or eight pieces strong most of the time, augmented perhaps by what is described as a “robot” programmed to improvise with the band. I’m not sure when I’m hearing that (at the end of “World”, it seems), but the sum is fully consonant and satisfying.

This comparison may or may not make sense to every listener, but Thisness reminded me less of all the New Jazz dates that Okazaki, Mitchell, Tidd, and Rickman have been on and more of the 1973 fusion classic Spectrum by Billy Cobham. This music is more complex, of course, with its untraditional structures and a vastly great degree of polyrhythm, but there is a sonic similarity to the loose, unforgivably pleasant wash of keys/vintage guitar/perfect groove of “Red Baron”. Okazaki and company somehow blend the genuine rapport and comfort of that old fusion date with the ambitions of this band of masters as they shuffle and traverse ideas, motifs, and a thoroughly modern collision of influences. They make it sound easy.

Tricksters, indeed.