Winner of the Parliamentary Jazz Award for Best Media, 2019


by Ian Mann

December 29, 2023


Another triumph for Myra Melford, a second near perfect synthesis of composition and improvisation performed by an exceptional group of musicians.

Myra Melford’s Fire And Water Quintet

“Hear The Light Singing”

(Rogue Art Records ROG-0130)

Myra Melford – piano, Mary Halvorson – guitar, Ingrid Laubrock – tenor & soprano saxophones, Tomeka Reid – cello, Lesley Mok – drums

“Hear The Light Singing” is the second album release from this stellar quintet led by the American pianist, composer and improviser Myra Melford. It follows the 2022 Rogue Art release “For The Love of Fire and Water” and in many respects the two recordings represent a unified work in that both are inspired by a series of drawings by the American visual artist Cy Twombly.

Twombly’s series is called “Gaeta (For The Love of Fire and Water)”, which in turn gives Melford her album title / band name. The drawings were made in the Italian coastal town of Gaeta and concentrate on the relationship between light and water. Melford later visited the town herself to gain inspiration for her musical project.

In 2019 what was supposed to be a one off quintet performed Melford’s Twombly inspired music at The Stone in New York City, the experimental music club run by John Zorn. Such was the favourable reaction to the performance that the quintet were asked to record the music and to perform it more widely.

The first edition of the Fire And Water Quintet featured Melford, Halvorson, Laubrock, Reid and drummer / percussionist Susie Ibarra. Following the inevitable Covid delays this line up finally recorded the album “For The Love Of Fire And Water”  at Firehouse 12 in New Haven, Connecticut in July 2021 for release on the artist owned Rogue Art imprint.

2022 saw the original quintet touring widely in Europe and performing music from the “For The Love Of Fire And Water” album. I was lucky enough to witness the band performing live at the Parabola Arts Centre as part of that year’s Cheltenham Jazz Festival. This was a show that represented a definite Festival highlight and my review of that performance, from which some of the above biographical detail has been gleaned, can be found here.

I acquired a copy of the album after the show, as did many other audience members, and Myra was kind enough to sign it for me. After listening to the recording I was fairly certain that the quintet had probably played the album in sequence, sometimes seguing some of the ten movements together.  Given the open nature of the compositions the live performances must surely be subtly different every time, totally in keeping with the true spirit of jazz and improvised music.

Melford has explained that the pieces on the first album comprise of an “amalgamation of composed ideas, text directions for interaction and collective improvisation”. For me this represents a pretty perfect balance between the free and the structured, the composed and the improvised.

By the time of the recording of “Hear The Light Singing” at the Firehouse in November 2022 there had been one line up change with Lesley Mok replacing Ibarra at the drums. Thankfully the chemistry of the band remains largely unchanged and the standard of both the writing and the playing is as superb as ever.

The pieces on the first Fire And Water album were simply titled Parts I to X and were essentially short written passages linked together via improvised episodes, some of them performed solo.

For “Hear The Light Singing” the process is essentially the same, but the new album features five longer tracks, which Melford refers to as “Insertions”, because they have been designed to entwine with the original “For The Love Of Fire And Water” suite, whilst still being capable of standing alone, as on this new recording.  It’s entirely possible that some aspects of these may also have been heard at Cheltenham.

Nathalie Weiner’s liner notes feature Melford describing and explaining various aspects of her compositional / creative process and they make for fascinating reading. Melford has been pleasantly surprised at “just how appealing this band is to a lot of people” and “how strong it is, and how great the chemistry is”.

In one particularly telling quote Melford says;
“I love music with grooves and chord changes and melodies, but I also love open playing. One of the ‘problems’ that I’m trying to address in my work across all different projects and across my lifetime is how to bring my love of both these things together in a way that really makes sense to me”.

With the Fire And Water Quintet I’d say that she’s pretty much achieved her goal and the perfect synthesis – hence the appeal of the band to a broad, but still adventurous, listenership.

Turning now to the sounds themselves. Each of the five “Insertions” features a passage of unaccompanied playing from one of the quintet members. It’s the leader that introduces “Insertion One” with a passage of unaccompanied piano improvisation that highlights her prodigious technique, edging towards the avant garde, while still remaining eminently listenable. It’s a fine line and it’s one that the quintet continue to tread during the written passages with spiky contrapuntal lines featuring sax, piano and guitar teamed with what Melford has described as ‘rock changes’. Halvorson’s astute use of various guitar effects helps to give the music a luminous quality, reflecting the initial inspiration of light and water. Laubrock blows some gorgeous melodies on soprano sax before the music shades off into something more fidgety and abstract, with Laubrock’s playing harsher and with Reid’s plucked cello becoming an increasingly distinctive component. The music continues to unfold episodically, with Melford’s piano again coming to the fore as Mok’s drums also become more prominent, then it’s over to Halvorson for some more extraordinary guitar playing,  more aggressive this time, but still deploying the remarkable use of effects. The level of group interaction remains astonishingly high throughout. These are five musicians at the top of their individual and collective games.

Reid introduces “Insertion Two” with a passage of unaccompanied bowed cello, which combines a melancholic romanticism with great virtuosity. The mood is sustained through a duo passage with Melford on a piece that the composer says was inspired by “the sea on a calm day”. Cello remains prominent in the mix even when drums and guitar are added, only fading away when Laubrock takes over on tenor sax, her melodic soloing supported by Mok’s deft drum and cymbal work. Halvorson’s use of guitar effects provides the aural equivalent of dappled sunlight dancing on the water as she combines with the rest of the group, including the returning Reid, on a closing section that also sees those waters becoming increasingly ruffled.

At over eighteen minutes duration “Insertion Three” represents the album’s centre piece. New drummer Lesley Mok is featured extensively, beginning with an opening duet with Halvorson in which both musicians are very much equal partners. Melford describes this piece as featuring the “more rambunctious stuff I like to get into” and it’s here that the music extends into more obvious ‘free improv’ territory, with Halvorson exploring extended techniques and wringing some truly extraordinary sounds from her guitar. Reid’s cello becomes involved and I suspect that we may also hear Melford playing ‘under the lid’. Melford deploys a more conventional piano technique during the course of an engaging dialogue with Laubrock’s tenor that forms part of a piece that features some extraordinary duets. Melford and Laubrock push deep into improvised territory, where they are temporarily joined by Mok, Halvorson and Reid. A brief collective section leads to a further sax and piano dialogue, but one that is rudely interrupted by the sounds of drums and increasingly scabrous guitar and sax, this is truly ‘rambunctious stuff’ indeed, abrasive and uncompromising. Eventually the storm blows itself out and this section resolves itself with a more melodic passage featuring the sounds of guitar and cello. The stage is now set for Mok’s brilliantly constructed drum feature, beginning with the sounds of mallets on drums and cymbals. Her solo gradually grows in intensity, with recording engineer Nick Taylor capturing all the details and nuances of her playing. A further drums and guitar duet follows, which again features some extraordinary sounds and playing.

The music segues almost imperceptibly into “Insertion Four”, which is ushered in by an immersive guitar solo from Halvorson that includes the use of live looping and other electronic effects to create a dizzying shower of notes. “I was thinking of the loops as waves or cycles of the ocean, but also the weather and the light” explains Melford. The introduction of piano and bowed cello eventually has a calming effect and ultimately this is a piece that features some of the album’s most beautiful melodies. It represents an effective contrast to the improvised hurly burly of “Insertion Three”.

“Insertion Five” completes the album and is introduced by a passage of unaccompanied tenor saxophone from Laubrock, a sombre and reflective passage that incorporates the use of extended techniques. Melford joins to create a sax / piano dialogue and the pair are eventually augmented by Halvorson.  With the addition of the rest of the band the music takes more of an upbeat turn, with Reid adding a remarkable plucked cello solo over Mok’s ebullient drum rhythms. Melford subsequently takes over on piano, saying of this final section “I think that there’s a real playfulness and light-heartedness in Twombly’s work that maybe gets overlooked because it’s so abstract”. The piece was originally written as an uplifting encore for the quintet to play in concert. Melford again; “There’s an expression of joy that’s very present and that’s also important to me. I love to play music that feels this way and I wanted to bring that into the project.”

It would now seem that the full Twombly inspired work is the first “Fire And Water” suite punctuated by the “Insertions” of “Hear The Light Singing”. It would be quite something to see the whole thing performed live, presumably over the course of two sets. Weiner’s notes also suggest that the quintet’s live performances are now augmented by visuals of Twombly’s work, something that quite understandably didn’t happen at Cheltenham.

I see from Melford’s website that the quintet will be touring in the US in 2024 before coming to Europe in July. Let’s hope for a UK date that I might be able to get to. After having enjoyed the Cheltenham set so much it would be great to see the entire work, and possibly the accompanying visuals.

“Hear The Light Singing” represents another triumph for Myra Melford, a second near perfect synthesis of composition and improvisation performed by an exceptional group of musicians.

Both Fire And Water Quintet album are available via Melford’s website, which also includes details of upcoming tour dates.

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