By Troy Dostert
Here we have two outstanding contemporary pianists, each with a distinctive vision. Of the two, Myra Melford is the veteran, having been around since the mid-80s, and recording with her own groups since the early 1990s. Her Alive in the House of Saints (HatHut, 1993) remains, in this reviewer’s opinion, one of the finest live piano trio recordings of the last few decades, a masterful record that manages to be sublimely lyrical, technically dazzling, and irresistibly accessible, with a dynamic groove established by Lindsey Horner (bass) and Reggie Nicholson (drums) that works perfectly with Melford’s compositional approach.
Kris Davis is the (relative) newcomer, although the list of noteworthy recordings she’s released over the last few years is impressive, many of which have been reviewed on this blog. (Listen to her Paradoxical Frog release, Union, with Tyshawn Sorey and Ingrid Laubrock, for an especially strong glimpse of what she brings to the table).
Both players are highly adventurous in their own way, with Melford generally choosing a more melodic approach to her compositions, although not without freer moments of abstraction and dissonance. Davis, on the other hand, is in some respects the more challenging composer, with pieces that are alternately dense, complex, and minimalist, sometimes all within the same piece. She is certainly the less accessible of the two pianists, but the rewards of persisting with her music are substantial. Okay, so much for the preliminaries: let’s get to the records at hand!
Kris Davis – Massive Threads (Thirsty Ear, 2013) ****
Davis’s playing on this record is especially intriguing for the diversity of styles it showcases. The first cut, “Ten Exorcists,” is a stunning and captivating track, which relies for much of its seven or so minutes on just one or two notes, struck rapidly in a minimalist technique that Davis then gradually develops into more complex passages, all while keeping the simple tonal center at the core of the improvisation, and with independent ideas explored with each hand. From the very start, Davis is letting the listener know that this isn’t going to be an “easy” record; it’s going to challenge and confront, rather than drawing in, her audience. But the brilliance of her technique on this track signals that there will definitely be some memorable moments in the process.
With the second track, “Desolation and Despair,” Davis shifts gears radically, going to a much more spartan musical vision, getting the most musical value possible from just a few notes, using space and silence to great effect, and as the title of the piece suggests, it’s a haunting and bleak musical statement.
The centerpiece of the record is really the fourth track, “Massive Threads”: it’s the longest of the eight tracks, at over 10 minutes, and it perfectly illustrates the way in which Davis embodies a technically sophisticated but austere, demanding approach to her instrument. It’s also another example of Davis’ astonishing ability to develop separate ideas with both hands simultaneously, as she does at the opening of the track. Then, as the piece develops, Davis gravitates toward the lower end of the piano, using progressively stronger and weightier chords, eventually building to a powerful two-handed workout in the bass register. It’s almost overwhelming: relentless, and pummeling (“massive” threads indeed!), until finally retreating a bit, giving the listener some mercy, as she explores a lighter theme before going back to more tension and power with driving chords in the bass register and then, finally, diminishing, with a few spare interjections at the upper end of the keyboard to bring things to a close.
The rest of the tracks are similarly distinctive and imaginative; Davis has clearly planned this record carefully, offering unique statements with each track. And each track is well-named also: yes, the fifth track, “Dancing Marlins,” really does remind one of spry, exuberant fish, full of life and surprise! And there’s even a great Monk cover (“Evidence”). True to form, Davis develops it in a careful but abstract manner. Although it takes a while for the tune’s melody to come into focus, it does emerge, and Davis displays her distinctive voice wonderfully as it unfolds.
It’s a fine recording, and especially strong in revealing Davis as a terrific improviser and one whose compositional approach is both forceful and intriguing. If I had to offer a quibble with it, I’d say that at times Davis’s concept strikes me as a bit cold and severe. While I’m certainly not averse to being challenged in my musical explorations, I did at times struggle to find an emotional core in the music that would allow me to enjoy it on a less cerebral level. Davis does what she does really well; but this might not be a record I’ll come back to listen to as often as others that have left a stronger emotional impact on me.
Myra Melford – Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12, 2013) ****
With eleven tracks to work with, Melford doesn’t offer any marathon-length performances, but there’s a lot of stylistic variety, especially on the first half or so of the record. I hear some Keith Jarrett influence on “Red Land,” with another compelling left-hand use of ostinato, with ringing chords in the right hand; and Melford’s oft-cited debt to Cecil Taylor is apparent on “Piano Music,” where her technical skill with percussive flourishes and powerful note clusters is truly attention-grabbing. In addition to the more up-tempo tracks, where Melford is often at her best, she also has a way with more reflective pieces, as on “Red Beach” the second track. It’s a ruminative, melancholy statement, with a somber but also uplifting delicate melody she explores as the piece develops.
It’s an excellent recording overall, although the last half of the record does meander a bit; Melford’s compositions were somewhat less successful on the final few tracks, and they lacked the more convincing sense of purpose established earlier in the record. The last track, “Still Life,” offers a charming little tune, but it wasn’t quite enough to rescue the more lackluster tracks that preceded it.
For fans of solo piano records, both of these recordings are definitely worth checking out. While Davis’s is the more imposing record, it’s got a lot to offer; and although Melford is just as technically brilliant, she is a bit more willing to let loose and dance from time to time.