“The pianist and composer Myra Melford’s five-piece band of all-star creative improvisers is aptly named: There is something volatile and elemental about the music she makes with Ingrid Laubrock, the saxophonist; Mary Halvorson, the guitarist; Tomeka Reid, the cellist; and Lesley Mok, the percussionist. On “Hear the Light Singing,” the group’s second LP, Halvorson’s effects-laden guitar comes in splashes and jolts, and Reid’s cello moves in hurrying steps or generous waves.” (Nov. 3; RogueArt)
“A true masterpiece.”
With her new record Hear the Light Singing, pianist and composer Myra Melford returns to a familiar ensemble and concept, digging in and unearthing more deeply evocative and thought-provoking music as she goes. Hear the Light Singing is a sequel of sorts to her 2022 release, For The Love Of Fire And Water, featuring a nearly-identical all-star cast and the same set of Cy Twombly drawings from which the first album drew its name as inspiration. This album is named specifically for Melford's interpretation of the sunlight on the Mediterranean in Gaeta, Italy, where Twombly made those drawings, and the synesthetic sensation it creates.
What started as Melford's loose sketches before a one-off (or so they thought) June 2019 gig at The Stone turned into a more fleshed-out suite on the original For The Love Of Fire And Water (2022) record; now, on this new release, it has grown into another set of extraordinary compositions that Melford designed to entwine with the original suite, but still stand alone. "The thing that's been so incredible for me since that very first gig we did together at The Stone is just how appealing this band is to a lot of people — how strong it is, and how great the chemistry is," says Melford. "These new insertions that I composed for the tour were super fun to play, and I think gave us all a different kind of focus."
Along with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, cellist Tomeka Reid, guitarist Mark Halvorson and drummer Lesley Mok, Melford started reshaping parts of the suite and adding new ones. "This music was really written for these performers," Melford says. "The first one was what I imagined might be fun to do with them. The second set of material was really written to highlight who they are and how we play together in a much more intentional way than I was able to do before I got to know them."
The suite's evolution marked a new phase of its dynamic creation, one in which Melford used the possibilities of live performance to expand on and further clarify her initial vision.
"Performing it live gave us a much greater understanding of how expandable the music might be through improvisation," says Melford. She added onto some parts of the original suite, and omitted others from the live set that were less fluid onstage than they had been in studio. Original movements that were more through-composed got new improvised sections, and others that were more open were replaced by these new "insertions," as Melford calls them, which are for the most part more composed — a decision in part meant to further diversify the band's repertoire, as well as to tie its sound to more of Melford's previous work.
"I felt like an aspect of my musical personality was missing," as she puts it. "I love music with grooves and chord changes and melodies, but I also love open playing. One of the 'problems' that I'm trying to address in my work across all different projects and across my lifetime really is how to bring my love for both of these things together in a way that really makes sense to me."
Like the original suite, Hear the Light Singing was recorded at New Haven's Firehouse 12 — this time, on the heels of the original's cross-country CD release tour. The grueling schedule, though, made them feel practiced once they got into the studio. "There are a lot of first takes on the album," Melford says.
Melford opens the album with brief stretch of energetic, fiery solo improvisation, before diving in alongside the band to a composition that veers easily between angular contrapuntal lines and what she describes as rock changes — a fitting pairing for the jagged, bright red Twombly drawing that it's been paired with at the ensemble's live performances.
Each member of the quintet is featured unaccompanied on one of the album's five pieces; the second begins with a heart-wrenching, romantic and virtuosic solo by Reid. She introduces the kind of gurgling, melancholy piece that Melford says was inspired by the sea on a calm day. The following track, the album's epic centerpiece, features "the more rambunctious stuff that I like to get into," as Melford puts it — sprawling, tangled improvisations that never lose their heat. Drummer Lesley Mok is featured on the nearly 20-minute recording, a veritable odyssey of its own.
The fourth insertion begins with an extended solo by Halvorson, tracing delicate layers of almost baroque looping riffs before Melford leads the rest of the band in with a steady, grounding bassline. Overall, the piece's spare (but hardly minimalist) and balanced style has an almost therapeutic quality. "I was thinking of the loops as waves or cycles of the ocean, but also the weather and the light," Melford says of the piece. "I just felt like I could go a little bit deeper into what it feels like to live by the sea."
For Hear the Light Singing's finale, which begins with an earthy, sensitive saxophone solo from Laubrock, Melford ends in a jubilant, nearly-danceable place — its original purpose was to be an encore for the ensemble. "I think there's a real playfulness and lightheartedness in some of Twombly's work that maybe gets overlooked because it's so abstract," says Melford. "But there's an expression of joy that's very present, and that's also important to me. I love to play music that feels that way, and I wanted to bring that into this project."
In keeping with the project's dynamic, living status, Melford says that listeners don't necessarily need to try to listen to the original suites and insertions in the order the band performed them live — and that it's possible she might present them in that order on a future live recording. Rather, the music lives independent of and within all possible presentations. These new pieces meticulously build on the fierce energy and creativity of the first suite, making for a jaw-dropping and emotional showcase of these five artists' range.
— Liner notes by Nathalie Weiner, June 2023