Released after a quarter century of recordings as a bandleader or collaborator, 2013's Life Carries Me This Way is Myra Melford's first solo piano album. In a sense, the album presents Melford's artistry in its boldest relief to date, with her pianism unmediated by other musicians -- yet there is another presence here, that of Sacramento artist Don Reich, a kindred spirit who passed away in 2010. Melford pays homage to her friend Reich by interpreting 11 of his drawings, abstract pieces that resonated deeply with her and evoked a range of compositional approaches, from conventional notation to graphic scoring. The music is most fully appreciated in tandem with the reproductions of Reich's works gracing the pages of the CD booklet, as Melford offers up her own unique perspective on the visuals. Opener "Park Mechanics" launches from a lovely, ringing ostinato into an instantly appealing melodic and chordal motif over her strong left-hand walking line. Infectiously rhythmic, this is earworm material that shades the pianist's more free-form explorations as she works her way through modal transitions and blues-tinged forays back toward the theme; her near rollick on the keys may lead some to imagine Reich's bold cubist lines as the machinery of life pulsing beneath surfaces of green (or, out in the open air, enthusiastic kids on playground equipment). The album continues with interpretations of Reich pieces ranging from completely nonrepresentational to landscapes and a "Disassembled Still Life," as Melford clearly reveals why she has found a devoted audience among listeners whose tastes run from post-Cecil Taylor free jazz to Keith Jarrett-flavored lyricism to the rhythmic drive of one of her mentors, Don Pullen -- and yet, while listeners may hear parallels between Melford and other creative jazz pianists, her artistic persona is utterly singular.
"Red Beach" is ruminative, elegant, and spacious music for ocean sunset viewing, while Melford's beautiful chording and single-note runs unfold against a swayingly rhythmic backdrop on the rather similarly contemplative "Red Land." Deep rumbling notes and chords introduce the flurried angularities and sharp jabs of "Piano Music" and form emerges gradually and delicately, surrounded by silence, in "Japanese Music," while Melford finds quirky and off-kilter places to store her theme's phrases in "Attic." One might hear echoes of another Melford mentor -- Henry Threadgill -- in "Curtain," if only in the piece's steady (yes, curtain-like) rise, as her block chords expand ever upward and outward before finally dissipating into ethereality. "Barcelona" and "Sagrada Familia" are, appropriately, companion drawings by Reich that Melford approaches in markedly different yet similarly abstract and complementary fashion, skittering around the upper-register keys in the former (suggesting a music-box improvisation on Monk's "Brilliant Corners") and ranging more widely across the keys on the latter (while flirting with "Misterioso"). Concluding with the aforementioned "Still Life," one of the pianist's loveliest melodies, Life Carries Me This Way adds new and welcome facets to Myra Melford's artistry, and new dimensions to the works of Don Reich as well.