03/01/07

Myra Melford Be Bread in L.A.

Pianist-composer Myra Melford has long managed to defy easy descriptors, working both inside and out and pushing her music into terrain with musical vocabulary both unique and, in its way, traditional. So it’s no surprise that her new electro-acoustic band Be Bread follows a similar course, creating an enticing fusion of free elements, tonalities and meters borrowed from other cultures, and post-jazz musings. She also offers up new and workable ideas concerning the tricky blend of electric and acoustic instruments—guitarist Brandon Ross and bassist Stomu Takeishi on the electric side, meshing with Melford at the grand piano (and occasionally harmonium), Cuong Vu on trumpet and Elliott Humberto Kavee on drums.

This empathetic band recorded Be Bread’s album The Image of Your Body, released last fall on Cryptogramophone, and played its first live shows on the West Coast, including a stop at the Hammer Museum in Westwood. If the large gallery’s sound mix was questionable, depending on where you were sitting, the museum setting seemed apt, given that Melford’s music fits squarely in the realm of art: She approaches her music with the touch of a restless innovator, but who one hasn’t left behind melodic logic or lyrical charm on the path to the new.

As both a player and writer, Melford likes to venture into diverse stylistic languages, including her recent studies in India on harmonium—which suggested an exotic, hip accordion at the Hammer--and selective patches of unhinged, rhythmically fiery, free playing on piano. Eastern winds blow through her new band, but so do multiple other reference points.

Intricate, Hindustani-like unison lines marked “Be Bread,” while on “To the Roof,” long tones soared over a rumbling rubato foundation. The 7/4 piece “Moonbird,” inspired by a sculpture by Joan Miro, was another enticing piece. It became a ripe vehicle for the fascinating Vu, who worked his way from serpentine lines to gruff abstract smears, as if chasing the spirit of Miro in musical terms. Funk lined the way, for part of the ride, on “Fear Slips Behind,” but the tune also fanned out into a free zone before falling back into the taut unison head.

These players suit Melford’s fresh ideas beautifully, bringing necessary chemistry and flexibility to the songbook, and playing in an open, non-prescriptive way sometimes redolent of Henry Threadgill’s groups (in which Ross and Takeishi have played). Ross remains one of the more interesting electric guitar stylists around, who uses his electronics subtly, with an especially supple use of the volume pedal and the discreetly deployed whammy bar for loosy-goosy vibrato effects coloring notes. His style falls somewhere between Bill Frisell and James Blood Ulmer, but really is a poetic voice with its own special character.

Takeishi has his own special language on electric bass, mixing muted tones and harmonics and surprise attack accents; his sound meshes well with this band and also shows a close-knit telepathy with Kavee in the rhythm section. Kavee moved fluidly between a loose-time, Paul Motian-like feel and more locked-in pulses, breaking loose with infectiously clattering dynamism in a solo.

At the Hammer, the band’s set ended as the album begins, with the tune “Equal Grace.” Starting out as a soft rumination on a modal bass ostinato, and gradually building to its fast unison melody at the end, the piece is typical of Melford’s writing for the band, and unusual at the same time. This music is, at once, meditative and muscular, following no particular rules of musical order except the ones the leader is still figuring out. In other words, it’s an artwork in progress.

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