It's been a couple of years since pianist Myra Melford released the broad-scoped, orchestral Where the Two Worlds Touch (Arabesque, 2004) by her group The Tent. Since then she's relocated to Berkeley from New York and, if anything, the duality of her previous record is explored in even greater detail on The Image of Your Body, featuring her new group, Be Bread. It's no surprise, given that the new disc was recorded only eight months after the Arabesque session. That it's taken nearly three years to get released is the real surprise, though it’s good news that she's hooked up with Cryptogramophone, a label that seems to stretch its boundaries of experimentation further with each new release.
The core of Be Bread consists of Melford on piano and harmonium, bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee, but it's really two quartets -- one featuring textural trumpeter Cuong Vu, the other guitarist Brandon Ross. Takeishi and Vu were members of The Tent, so there's a logical progression to Be Bread, but also significant differences as well, most notably a continued path towards episodic composition.
"Equal Grace" shifts gears a number of times, opening spaciously around Takeishi's repetitive pattern and Melford’s warm harmonium. Building gradually as Vu ranges from the abstractly textural to the lyrical, it evolves into a dervish-like rhythm where Melford begins to interact more closely with Vu, leading into a snakelike theme that sets the stage for Melford's solo, bridging the gap between East and West.
Melford's writing may be episodic, but every piece evolves naturally from one section to the next. "Luck Shifts" begins with Ross creating textural swells underneath her folkloric piano, but moves into darker territory, with Ross' biting solo voice layered over Melford's simple changes and Takeishi's interactive foundation. Ross cues into the next section with a melodic phrase that, again, seems to bridge cultures. Melford first created most of this music on melodica, making it the most consistently lyrical record of her career. Her piano solo on "Luck Shifts" is the definition of elegant simplicity.
That's not to say she's totally divorced herself from freer concerns. But while there are moments where the group breaks down into more vigorous chaos they are relatively brief and reflect, as Melford says in her liner notes, "layers of simultaneous activity, not unlike life in modern-day India." There may be underlying form throughout, but there’s also a persistent "in the moment" philosophy. Amongst a group of extraordinarily strong improvisers, Ross stands out, especially during the evolving intensity of his work on the rubato "To the Roof."
The Image of Your Body is proof that one's spiritual quest is inherently reflected in one's music. It's another superb release from Melford, whose evolution from a more aggressive free player to an equally unencumbered melodist is a path well worth following.