The galvanizing power of Myra Melford’s music rarely depends upon familiarity with her initial sources of inspiration, but spending a little time in her imagination’s fecund breeding ground can provide valuable insight. From the numinous Sufi poetry that fed her group Be Bread and the expansive mythos of Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano woven into her multimedia project Language of Dreams to the canvases of late Sacramento-based artist Don Reich, which informed her solo piano album Life Carries Me This Way, Melford has often responded deeply to extramusical sources.
At the first of four shows she played last weekend in the SFJAZZ Center’s Joe Henderson Lab, Melford introduced her Fire and Water Quintet, which features largely the same prodigious cast as the group’s May-released debut album: guitarist Mary Halvorson, German saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and cellist Tomeka Reid (a newly minted 2022 MacArthur fellow who recently held Mills College’s Darius Milhaud chair in composition). Susie Ibarra rounded out the all-star lineup on that album, For the Love of Fire and Water (RogueArt), but Lesley Mok, a rising force on the New York improvised music scene, has taken over the drum chair, and Saturday night she made an indelible first impression.
Inspired by a series of scribbly, enigmatic canvases by Cy Twombly, Melford largely avoids here the ecstatic heights and gospel refrains that often undergird her quintet compositions. Instead the Fire and Water music advances along cryptic and recondite paths. Titled with Roman numerals from I to X, the recording’s 10 tracks offer a range of moods and approaches, and on Saturday the group expanded on a mix of pieces from the album and added new material that the players are recording this week at Firehouse 12 in New Haven.
Unspooling at slow-medium tempos, the rising and falling middle-register themes wrestled with pitch and meter like an uneasy dance between the titular elements. With Reid moving between pizzicato rhythm accompaniment and arco melodic lines played in unison with Laubrock’s tenor and soprano sax, she often served as the ensemble’s pivot as it moved from duo and trio passages to the full quintet.
Melford’s exuberant pianism only peaked through on occasions, like in a long solo introduction that built to an extended quote from Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere,” played with unsentimental alacrity. Sitting up close with a full view of Halvorson offered a fascinating glimpse at her pedal work, bending notes like a Slinky descending a staircase. Moving between sticks, brushes, and particularly mallets, Mok provided deeply shaded textures throughout the set.
Even when Fire and Water settled into a groove, Melford’s themes seemed to play hide-and-seek. Much like Twombly’s calligraphic imagery, this is music that doesn’t give up its secrets easily.
Editor’s note: On Friday, Dec. 9, SFJAZZ will broadcast this performance as part of its Fridays Live series. Tune in to the video here.