City Paper is not for tourists
The Whole Tree Gone plays against avant-garde type: It’s immediately pleasurable on first encounter, less so with each listen thereafter. Neither pianist Myra Melford nor her Be Bread sextet commit any heinous sins on the album; the compositions, arrangements, and performances are crafted with precision and expertise. There’s just not much inspiration behind them, with one exception: “Through the Same Gate” sets a sweet, pretty melody for Ben Goldberg’s clarinet and Brandon Ross’ acoustic guitar (with trumpeter Cuong Vu playing harmony) against a groove by Melford, bassist Stomu Takeishi, and drummer Matt Wilson that evokes both Jamaican ska and Eastern European oompah. “Gate,” unfortunately, is the first track. It leads into the abrasive, Cecil Taylor-esque piano solo that begins “Moon Bird.” Melford, a disciple of Taylor, often beguiles with that dissonant percussive attack, but here it sounds tacked-on and directionless (a feat of sorts since its endless repetitions and rephrasings also make it sound belabored). Much of the album sounds similarly adrift. Vu takes the first solo on the title track, and his trumpet’s tone is more open and flourishing than on some of his own albums. But his improvisation quickly runs out of steam, and neither Ross’ oddly fragmented guitar solo nor buzzing counterpoint from Melford and Goldberg can recover the energy. “On the Lip of Insanity” is singular in its listlessness: Here, Melford, Goldberg, and especially Vu sound like they came to the recording session with cold-medicine hangovers. Ross does an admirable job, but it’s inconsistent within the band’s framework: Sometimes he has leeway to experiment and show off his delicate chops (“Night,” “Knocking from the Inside”) and sometimes he has nothing more to do than double another musician’s part (“Through the Same Gate,” “Moon Bird”). Notably, two musicians on The Whole Tree Gone are interesting from start to finish. Takeishi has a knack for announcing himself on each tune with a nimble-fingered phrase; his featured solo is a highlight of the otherwise ponderous “A Generation Comes and Another Goes.” Wilson, meanwhile, is always up for adventure, and sounds like he’s having the time of his life: His firm line on “I See a Horizon,” echoing Jack De Johnette’s subtler work on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, adds much-needed verve. Overall, however, the album is better served by words like “competent” and “serviceable”—in jazz, the exact opposites of “daring” and “exciting.” Melford’s album even makes its descriptions play against type.