Sunday, November 10, 2013

Myra Melford and Snowy Egret

Yes, there are snowy egrets in the Palo Alto Baylands, but in this case Snowy Egret is the name of pianist Myra Melford's extraordinary jazz quintet, with whom she premiered her major multimedia work, Language of Dreams, last night at the Yerba Buena Center in San Francisco. The work is inspired by writer Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy, and features short excerpts from that work, in English and Spanish, spoken by the singer Sofia Rei, usually over the music. It was performed before a large two-screen backdrop of grainy, impressionistic video footage, loosely connected to the themes of the work, as well as intermittent dancing by Oguri.

What to make of this concoction? First, the spoken-word element worked really well. The snippets of Galeano were selected primarily for their poetry rather than as narrative, and Rei's delivery was wonderful, as musical as the musicians'. Second, the videos: They seemed superfluous to me. I would say they were a distraction, but I paid little attention. Third, the dancing: This was truly weird. Oguri works in a kind of avant-Butoh tradition, which was, to say the least, jarring against Melford's modern jazz and Galeano's pan-Latin American politics. Oguri appeared and reappeared, in his PJs, playing a fool, a drunk, a clown, a spirit, a marionette, an exploited peasant, a... who knows? He is excellent... In fact, I liked it so much that it really was a distraction. What are you getting at, Myra?

But let's get to the main point: the music. Amazing. The band plays somewhere in the space between chamber jazz and free jazz, shifting from swirling soundscapes to pulsating grooves, in harmonies inspired by Melford's studies in Indian music as well as blues and Latin jazz. I was excited at the prospect of hearing Liberty Ellman on guitar, whose liquid runs did not disappoint. Drummer Jeff Davis was a real discovery.

And then there is Melford. A pipsqueak of a woman, she plays with extraordinary focus and power. I have heard her in a number of contexts now, including this summer with Allison Miller's band at Stanford. As a sidewoman, she can sometimes blend into the background. But when she is on, especially leading a band, she can be the best in the business.

Like many top modern jazz ensembles these days, Snowy Egret plays intricate, polyrhythmic music that is beautiful and often compelling, but occasionally over-written, and even when collectively improvised, a little too safe. Something of the ecstatic that can be heard in the solos of the great jazz improvisers-- think Armstrong or the later Coltrane-- is often missing. Myra Melford is certainly capable of it, as she proved in her best solo of the evening, building energy and tension with repeated motifs, and then dropping some of her mentor Don Pullen's best sonic explosives: fists and elbows, but also whipping glissandos, the piano in flight. Tough on the hands, thrilling for the ears. Give us more, Myra.

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