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Nashville Scene Trailblazers

Two female jazz bandleaders push music forward

By Ron Wynn

AUGUST 23, 1999:  Pianist Myra Melford and soprano saxophonist Jane Ira Bloom are among an emerging class of jazz musicians whose approach runs counter to prevailing trends. Both openly embrace the avant-garde, and both emphasize original compositions and tight interaction, rather than simple jams and shopworn anthems. Sometimes their songs invoke themes and moods closer to chamber music than jazz, while at other times the exchanges and dialogues are reminiscent of early-'70s loft sessions.

It's also a sign of vastly changing times that no one questions Melford's or Bloom's instrumental abilities; the bad old days when women were confined to vocal-only duties in jazz bands have long since passed, and Melford and Bloom are only two among many current female bandleaders, composers, arrangers, and soloists. Bloom has topped critics' polls the past couple of years, finishing ahead of such established icons as Wayne Shorter and Steve Lacy, while Melford's group includes trumpeter Dave Douglas, himself a much-respected musician.

Unfortunately, major labels have seen fit thus far to ignore Melford and Bloom; both are currently recording for the New York independent Arabesque, which has just issued new releases spotlighting their groups. Taken together, these two discs are indicative of an alternative direction for 21st-century improvisational music.

Melford's Above Blue includes two intricately arranged, multi-part numbers: "Through Storm's Embrace" and the title cut. On the former, her piano opening is somber, light, and entrancing, with Douglas' clipped trumpet lines nicely contrasting with Chris Speed's tenor and Erik Friedlander's eerie cello. Then the mood changes drastically, with Douglas and Speed churning out evocative, energized solos and Melford's crashing phrases answering them. Then, just as quickly, the musicians shift into a pastoral movement before concluding the piece. On "Above Blue," Melford takes center stage, displaying a rhythmic ferocity that reflects her debt to free keyboard giants Cecil Taylor and the late Don Pullen, to whom she dedicates the tune "Yet Can Spring."

Awards notwithstanding, Dave Douglas' playing has alienated nearly as many critics as it has pleased; his tone often wavers, and he favors licks, smears, and other effects instead of the crackling melodies and shimmering notes that are customary among modern trumpeters. Speed is a more conventional tenor saxophonist but takes a less orthodox approach on clarinet, darting in the upper or lower registers to generate vivid contrasts in his solos. Drummer Michael Sarin qualifies as the quintet's least heard member, because Melford is such a percussive player that she sometimes usurps his role. He does more shading and subtle coloration than attacking or driving the band, but he makes solid contributions to "Two But Live" and "Still in After's Shadow."

Though they frequently seem close to chaos, Melford's quintet never loses musical focus. Her role as leader comes across clearest during the middle passages on "Above Blue" and "Here Is Only Moment," when she guides the band back to the melody or glides into a restating of the arrangement. Above Blue succeeds both as an ensemble work and as a showcase of solo segments--the toughest task for any jazz date.

Soprano saxophonist Bloom's The Red Quartets veers between almost morose-sounding tunes like "Five Full Fathoms" and such spirited compositions as "Always Hope," "Climb Inside Her Eyes," and "Jax Calypso." Her skills prove uniformly impressive: She's never out of tune, regardless of how outside the melody she veers, and her notes remain crystal clear and full. She doesn't play terribly fast, nor does she do the dips and darts that have been patented by soprano stylists since John Coltrane, but her solos vary from explosive forays to moving, ethereal phrases, never becoming clichéd or uncertain.

Pianist Fred Hersch regularly plays in either solo or trio contexts, but he makes an easy adjustment to the quartet setting here. Since Bloom doesn't write rigid 4/4 tunes or emphasize standards or Broadway pieces, Hersch gets plenty of space and isn't restricted to just working off the bass/drum patterns. When the group does tackle a cover, its rendition nearly obliterates memory of the original. "Time After Time," for instance, gets harmonically inverted by Bloom and Hersch, while bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Bobby Previte do rhythmic wonders to the structure of Irving Berlin's "How Deep Is the Ocean."

Still, it's the new works that stand out on The Red Quartets, notably "Monk's Rec Room," which boasts Hersch's finest solo, and "It's a Corrugated World," which is sparked by Bloom's demure opening and raging conclusion. Anyone expecting basic rhythms will be disappointed; Dresser and Previte get little solo time, and Previte's support is generally more implied than direct. But the songs don't limp along--the musicians offer plenty of energy and emotion throughout.

Those who bash contemporary improvisers for lacking vision and originality should pay closer attention to the work of Myra Melford and Jane Ira Bloom. Both women are leaders creating their own way instead of treading down an old path.

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