Pianist Myra Melford has been on the scene for quite some time, but due to a limited amount of hours conflicting with countless other activities, some desired and others unwanted, I mostly know her by reputation and not by ear. A Windy City gal, she’s also identifiable as an element in the long march of post-Downtown NYC goings-on (working with Dave Douglas, Cuong Vu and others) as well as professor at UC Berkeley. It can certainly be daunting when a musician amasses a large body of unheard work, but the best thing to do when that situation arises is to simply open the lobes and jump on in, and ELEVEN GHOSTS, her 1997 duo release on HatOLOGY with drummer Han Bennink is a great place to start. On the disc’s opener “The First Mess”, Melford plays around with a tense, dark melodic line, adjusting the speed and tone of her playing while Bennink indulges in a spacious progression of blustery clatter. It’s a fine racket and one that’s not initially recognizable as jazz: slip this track into a long playlist of early ‘80s avant/industrial splut and I’m uncertain if it would raise an eyebrow, since it simmers like a soundtrack snippet from an under seen arts-grant-funded black and white film that concerns a woman in a log cabin who dreams she’s being pursued through the woods by an ominous Jean-Claude Brialy lookalike - a bit scary, but also rather swank. The pair doesn’t hover for long in this territory, however. “How Long Blues”, a classic tune of 1920s vintage from the masterful blues pianist Leroy Carr is celebrated, examined, deconstructed and then briefly brought back into something resembling its initial form. Along the way Melford flirts around and finally hits a groove that gets right up close to the sound that Roland Kirk goosed out of Horace Parlan in the mid ‘60s. And just as quickly she diverts from that cozy agreeability and dives headfirst into hot flurries of Taylor-esque energy runs. But where some post-Cecil keyboard maulers are uncomfortable or unable to redirect the explosiveness of their playing into quieter, more reflective places, Melford shows her Chicago roots and reins the music back to a calm abstraction that subtly nudges into a culmination of overt bluesy business. And of course she interacting with Bennink as well, who’s thundering along like a champ. Anybody who digs the Art Ensemble’s playful and loving shake-ups of tradition should welcome this warm and soothing lozenge. “Frank Goes To” is credited to Melford but is very much a showcase for Bennink’s ability to combine an abstract sensitivity with an almost haywire thunderous approach, essentially integrating Gene Krupa, Max Roach and Sunny Murray into one manic yet disciplined sensibility. He does lay-out though, and Melford’s playing is reminiscent of Don Pullen at his most angular. Jazz duos are quite often engaged with space, placing the players in a silent field where the connection to their respective instruments is greatly magnified and deep listening can occur.
As a solo turn for Bennink, “Another Mess” illustrates this quite well, and he percussively skitters anxiously all over his instrument, his sonic rumination including what sounds like the bowing of probable cymbals. Along the way he’s inspired to vocalize a very pertinent question, addressing the notion that avant-garde music is created in an intellectual vacuum, an idea that Bennink’s dynamic and engaging personality easily frustrates. “Which Way Is That?” begins with more solo meditating from Han, but when Melford enters a sound is conjured that reminds me very strongly of the stripped down advanced studies of Cecil’s Feel Trio or even his very great 1989 A&M CD IN FLORESCENCE with William Parker and Greg Bendian. It’s not long before Melford is resembling something like a very charged up and enthusiastically free version of mid-‘60s McCoy Tyner, but then she shifts gears into very melodic and approachable territory, recalling the very underrated and knowledgeably inside work of John Hicks. She returns seamlessly to more Taylor-esque explosiveness, and it’s readily apparent that Melford’s intense mastery of styles is devoted to examining the beauty inherent in the long history of jazz while keeping it focused on the future. Indeed, this is the concern of most avant-gardists, but Melford’s approach is quite individualistic and as such is worthy of deep salutation. It’s admittedly really difficult for the discourse on her pianistic ability to not almost continually reference Taylor, who along with Ornette simply looms like a giant as one of the last remaining free masters of the original wave and an obvious deep influence on Melford’s playing. But there were other players approaching the instrument in a free context in the ‘60s and ‘70s: curiously her hometown predecessor Muhal Richard Abrams doesn’t immediately spring to mind except in their shared non-coastal approach to tradition. Frankly, I hear more Pullen and Dave Burrell, and “Three Ghosts” does sound like a passage from a fictitious Actuel due session between Burrell and Andrew Cyrille. Much of this is due to Bennink’s shift into identifiably late-‘60s American free drum mode, which isn’t surprising since as mentioned elsewhere on this blog he contributed to Marion Brown’s rip-roaring expatriate masterpiece PORTO NOVO. The track is one of the few on ELEVEN GHOSTS that’s entirely outside, and it contrasts well with “Some Relief”, which is just the opposite in its brief nod back at Jelly Roll/stride/boogie-woogie exaltedness. It’d work great as a moldy-fig fake-out. But watch it, for those cats are fierce. “And Now Some Blues”, even though it opens with a burst of drumming in line with vintage Blakey, is quite abstracted for most of its duration, only showing a short glimpse of high barrelhouse atmosphere as it nears the end. It’s enough though, showing that the idea of “inside/outside” can prove incredibly successful beyond just the context of free-bop. It’s tempting to credit Melford as the one woman realization of the goals attempted by the late ‘70s summit meeting of Mary Lou Williams and Taylor (see what I mean about how he dominates the discourse?). The fruitful results of ELEVEN GHOSTS show that unlike many duos, the results of which present contrasting styles mingling into new sonic ventures, Melford and Bennink are likeminded collaborators with a combined eye on the past that develops extremely well as a study in contrasts since they often express themselves in different ways. “Now” is a great example of Han’s individuality. In the course of its two minutes the drumming never overtly references precedent, the spirit of Baby Dodds remaining implicit. Did I say spirit? These two really know how to title a CD. Like a commentary on Bennink’s work on that piece, “And Now” is packed with full on Taylor tilting, building with dense intensity toward an abrupt end that gives way to the record’s excellent coda, a lovely rumination on Scott Joplin’s timeless “Maple Leaf Rag”. This points her firmly back to Chicago, but not in the expected way, recalling Anthony Braxton’s DUETS 1976 with none other than Muhal Richard Abrams. So Abrams and Melford appear close than I thought. How shifty. ELEVEN GHOSTS is eleven tracks of expertly delivered improvisation and is a fantastic doorway into the work of this world class composer/pianist.