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Hear an exclusive track from Myra Melford's stunning 'For The Love Of Fire And Water'

Myra Melford
Bryan Murray

Among other things, Myra Melford is a master in the art of wringing sound out of color and line. An insatiably inventive pianist and composer, she has always found sustenance in modern art — notably the subversive, scribbly works of Cy Twombly.

Melford’s brilliant 2018 album The Other Side of Air, featuring the group she calls Snowy Egret, drew particular inspiration from Twombly and a kindred spirit, South African artist and animator William Kentridge. Her new release, For the Love of Fire and Water, extends this inquiry with an improvising all-star crew: Mary Halvorson on guitar, Tomeka Reid on cello, Ingrid Laubrock on soprano and tenor saxophone, and Susie Ibarra on drums and percussion. We're proud to premiere a track from the album, which is due for release on RogueArt on April 1, and unfolds as a suite in 10 movements.

Myra Melford, "VII"

The compositions on the album were made in loose response to Gaeta Set (for the Love of Fire & Water), an oil-on-paper series that Twombly completed in 1981. Acquired several years later by the Brandhorst Museum, a contemporary art institution in Munich, it remains in their permanent collection. “VII,” which opens in brambly abstraction but soon pulls toward a syncopated form, corresponds to the seventh piece Melford was provided by the museum, in a clutch of digital image files.

“It’s a reflection on a drawing by Cy Twombly that has a certain amount of repetition, but also some of the rough-and-tumble free-for-all and high energy of some of the other drawings in this series,” Melford tells WBGO, via email. “I love the ebb and flow that’s possible with these amazing players. They’re always so present in each moment.”

Frank Stewart

Those consummate players — each an accomplished composer and bandleader in her own right — first convened as part of Melford's June 2019 residency at The Stone, which she discussed in this episode of The Checkout. “I had a feeling it would be fun,” she recalls now, “and since we didn’t have much time to rehearse I wanted to leave it fairly open and do a lot of improvising. So I put together a road map of different duos and trios and various text instructions and mixed in a few sketches for new music I was working on.”

Natalie Weiner’s illuminating liner notes acknowledge, briefly but meaningfully, that Melford’s fearless new quintet consists entirely of women. “Coming up as a woman in this music, it felt important to show that I could play with anybody and not put myself in a box,” Melford tells Weiner. “But as I’ve gotten older, it’s felt more important to support both my female-identifying students and peers.”

Myra Melford will perform this Saturday with Snowy Egret at the Big Ears Festival, though the appearance has already been altered by some tragic circumstances: trumpeter Cuong Vu will stand in for cornetist Ron Miles, who died early this month. There seems little doubt that Melford will draw out some of the emotional resonance encoded in the music — a process she touches on, obliquely, in the new album notes.

“I read that when Twombly was a young artist, one of the things he did to train himself was to turn out all the lights at night and draw in the dark,” Melford tells Weiner. “He was interested in what it felt like to make the line more than what it looked like, and that seemed like an apt metaphor for how I play the piano. For me, it’s all about the gesture and the energy. Of course, there’s a sound to it, but it’s almost as if the sound is the information I get after the impulse to make a gesture.”

For an in-depth profile of Myra Melford, listen to this recent episode of Jazz Night in America, written and produced by Sarah Geledi.

A veteran jazz critic and award-winning author, Nate Chinen is editorial director at WBGO and a regular contributor to NPR Music.