Live reviews

Myra Melford’s Fire & Water Quintet at Ronnie Scott’s

Myra Melford’s Fire & Water Quintet

(Ronnie Scott’s, 1 May 2022. Review and drawings by Geoff Winston)

Myra Melford. Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2022. All Rights Reserved

Pianist/composer Myra Melford’s ‘Fire and Water’ project takes its title from a series of vibrant, abstract drawings by the artist, Cy Twombly (1928-2011), ‘Gaeta Set, For the Love of Fire and Water’ (1981), subsequently reproduced in a limited edition book (1993). Twombly’s way of working inspired Melford after she saw his retrospective exhibition at MOMA in New York in 1994. She says, “He was interested in what it felt like to make the line more than what it looked like, and that seemed an apt metaphor for how I play the piano. For me, it is all about the gesture and the energy.”

On the surface, Ronnie’s may seem a surprising choice for Melford’s group of outstanding improvising musicians, each of whom has led ensembles and has the authority to recast the music’s boundaries in their own right – Mary Halvorson (guitar), Ingrid Laubrock (saxophones), Tomeka Reid (cello) and Susie Ibarra (drums/percussion). One might think that their natural habitat might take its cue from New York’s The Stone venue, which is as basic as can be, where Melford brought together this quintet for its debut performance, which was swiftly followed by a recording session at New Haven’s experimental hub, Firehouse 12.

Notwithstanding, the quintet turned in two highly accomplished sets at Ronnie’s which saw them immersed in musical dialogues mapping out a journey of intense yet nuanced musical explorations, combining scored structures with ad hoc interchanges and progressions.

There was no formal breaking of the ice as the grinning Melford, with her neat shock of short, white hair, launched gleefully into a dazzling, high octane, solo piano overture, with left and right hands seemingly working independently at a key point. Reid found her moment to introduce mellow, fluent play which then complemented Ibarra’s episode of hand-based drumming with nervous skitterings on the cello strings. Laubrock picked up the rhythms and and forged a way ahead with a strong, leading statement that invited Halvorson in with her marvellously disconcerting, note-bending fretboard work.

Tomeka Reid. Drawing by Geoffrey Winston. © 2022. All Rights Reserved

The spirit of the conversation was entrenched in the careful passing of the baton between the musicians throughout the evening with Melford discreetly overseeing and guiding the dialogue.

The second set saw them pull out all the stops with grinding tremors evoked by Reid and Halvorson, high register keyboard skiddings at breakneck pace from Melford, and radical changes of pace which somehow contrived to feel comfortably organic. Passages of purposeful chaos were tempered by Halvorson’s otherworldly, destabilising tones and from Melford as she dipped in to the body of Ronnie’s grand piano. A massive honking horn courtesy of Laubrock, a resounding ship’s bell, a small gong, a tiny tinkling bell and rapid fire percussion from Ibarra added to the frenzy which ultimately gave way to synchronised melodic passages.

Cy Twombly once said: “I cannot make a picture unless everything is working. It’s like a state.” Myra Melford’s quintet not only aspired to Twombly’s vision of transcendence. Individually and collectively, they attained it.

LINK: Album review Myra Melford – For the Love of Fire and Water (RogueArt) by Jon Turney

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