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It’s practically futile to try to extend the legacy of a jazz icon like pianist Cecil Taylor, whose musical personality nearly defines the idiom of “creative improvised music.” Taylor’s brutal, cubist approach to improvisation has provided a benchmark for pianists such as Matthew Shipp, Marilyn Crispell, and Myra Melford, and they have demonstrated all too well that it’s easier to mock the master’s prickly techniques than to interpret them with a discernible degree of originality. But Melford’s new album, Above Blue, suggests that finding her own voice isn’t impossible.
Melford’s playing is indeed prone to outbursts of ear-quaking tone clusters, swirling glissandos, and asymmetrical rhythms. On “Yet Can Spring (for Don Pullen),” her spirited tribute to the late pianistwho also had to distinguish himself from Taylor Melford enlivens her closing solo with a cyclone of spiraling single notes and thunderclaps of dissonance, pacing it gracefully as it steadily evolves from a bluesy romp to something more intense and fiery. But Melford also distances herself from Taylor’s influence by throwing in some ragtime, bebop, and klezmer: On “A White Flower Grows in the Quietness,” she pieces together a miniature suite that juxtaposes pastoral colors and elusive melodies with the jubilant rhythms associated with the Radical Jewish Music Movement.
The pianist’s ensemble, the Same River, Twice, is her most dynamic to date. She creates equally bold music with Equal Interest (her collaboration with Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians veterans saxophonist Joseph Jarman and violinist Leroy Jenkins) and also with Crush (her trio with drummer Kenny Wollesen and bassist Stomu Takeishi), but the Same River, Twice lends Melford other formidable instrumentalists in a nimble quintet: The ensemble boasts trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist-clarinetist Chris Speed, two of the New York downtown scene’s most heralded bandleaders. Douglas’ tart tone and blurry way with a melody, paired with the amazing volume of his output, mark him as one of the most distinctive trumpeters to emerge in the past two decades. Speed’s explorations in Balkan music have signaled a new territory for jazz improvisation. Cellist Erik Friedlander and drummer Michael Sarin have quickly become two of avant-garde jazz’s most sought-out musicians. Friedlander functions as both the ensemble’s anchor and an additional melodic voice, whereas Sarin offers both enticing colors and textures while retaining a sense of swing.
Following a Duke Ellington strategy, Melford writes to the strengths of her cohorts, resulting in a deeply personal songbook. The knotty figure that opens “Two but Live” is as much about Douglas’ trademark approach as it is about Melford’s penmanship. The wistful “Still in After’s Shadow” provides the ideal showcase for Friedlander’s beautiful timbres. Melford’s tenure with saxophonist and composer Henry Threadgill informs her sense of space; she builds episodic compositions brimming with complex melodies and rhythms. Threadgill’s tonal manipulations have also rubbed offjust listen to the beguiling voicings of clarinet, cello, and trumpet. Some of Melford’s compositions also achieve intense quiet, possibly owing to her time with Equal Interest. The serenity of “Still in After’s Shadow” wonderfully offsets the thorniness of “Two but Live.”
Above Blue’s emotional range offers further testament to Melford’s musicality. Both her playing and her composition are prone to showing a range of temperaments in a single song. On “Through Storm’s Embrace,” Melford and Douglas saunter with a humorous melody that quickly decomposes into a more ethereal interlude and, finally, becomes a hellish freefall. With her still-evolving compositional wit, Melford does more than advance Taylor’s risk-taking legacyshe delivers rich music of the sort Duke often described as “beyond category.”
Pianist Jason Moran is out to get the bebop establishment, embellishing his modern bebop with avant-garde techniques. His stunning debut, Soundtrack to Human Motion, brings out an intriguing collection of originals to introduce a wildly imaginative pianist and composer whose maturity well surpasses his 24 years.
Moran has successfully absorbed the daring of former teachers Muhal Richard Abrams, Jaki Byard, and Andrew Hill to forge an intriguing personality of his own. His recent involvement with M-BASE veterans saxophonists Greg Osby and Steve Coleman, as well as vocalist Cassandra Wilson, is evident in his densely layered compositions, which rely heavily on group interaction.
Compared with his bebop contemporaries, Moran is a nut case; both his playing and his compositions seem manic-depressive in the extreme. Moran can move from glee to gloom in the course of three bars. In between those two emotions, he often devises humorous passages that ride atop queasy midtempos, as he does on his perplexing tribute to the late graffiti artist Jean-Michael Basquiat on “JAMO Meets SAMO.” And on “Release From Suffering,” Moran stirs an emotional whirlwind as the piece develops from a weepy lament to a gospel-tinged psalm.
Structurally, Moran’s compositions are rooted in the modern bebop idiom, but their interior designs are chock-full of intersecting melodies, recurring motifs, and orchestral voicings. The elasticity of “Aquanaut” and “Retrograde” allows Moran to make his filigreed melodies careen with abandon, yet he never destroys their configurations. Moran’s playing leans toward impressionism as he approaches the piano with a feathery touch and crisp attacks. But his delivery can be thorny, too, with criss-crossing single-note runs, rumbling tremolos, and skittering high-register trills. Moran’s left hand creates dramatic tension as he constantly shifts the velocity of his solos, while his right hand independently threads extended melodies through a maze of rhythmic changes.
The success of Soundtrack to Human Motion stems from Moran’s prodigious skills and idiosyncratic compositions, but also from the seeming telepathy of his ensemble. Using some of the musicians from Osby’s acoustic ensemble, he’s already developed a deep rapport with drummer Eric Harland and bassist Lonnie Plaxico. It seems Moran’s greatest empathy, however, lies with Osby himself and vibraphonist Stefon Harris: Together the three create bright timbres and intersecting melodies that heighten the sense of dangerthough sometimes Moran’s voice gets lost in the complicated matrix. Fortunately, Soundtrack to Human Motion offers the trio excursion “Le Tombeau de Couperin/States of Art,” in which Moran’s stately reading of Maurice Ravel’s composition blends into his own equally sterling original.
I’d argue that history will treat Soundtrack to Human Motion as an important document of late-20th-century modern jazz, because it introduces the most thoroughly musical pianist to emerge from the post-bop idiom since Geri Allen. With Moran’s commanding technical facilities and visionary compositions, a new legacy of jazz icons has begun. CP