Since the mid-'90s, pianist/composer Myra Melford's quintets such as the Extended Ensemble, the Same River, Twice, the Tent, and Be Bread have been among her most adventurous and inimitable groupings -- and so one greets the arrival of her latest five-piece, Snowy Egret, with high anticipation. Released by Enja/Yellowbird in March 2015, Snowy Egret's eponymous debut album features Melford compositions inspired by Uruguayan author, historian, and journalist Eduardo Galeano's Memory of Fire trilogy; the quintet performed the music in November 2013 at San Francisco's Yerba Buena Center for the Arts as part of Melford's multimedia Language of Dreams project, which also included dance, video, and spoken word. Although the hourlong Snowy Egret is divorced from the visual and spoken elements of Language of Dreams, it stands strongly as a purely musical experience, with the pianist joined by her self-described "killer band" featuring cornetist Ron Miles, guitarist Liberty Ellman, longtime Melford collaborator bassist Stomu Takeishi, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey. The perpetually exploratory Melford is always crossing and blurring boundaries -- stylistic, cultural, geographic -- and never more so than on Snowy Egret, which, despite the music's South American literary inspiration, expands far beyond the expectations of "Latin jazz" to encompass the full range of her creative jazz sensibilities.
Before evolving into a strong feature for the leader's soulfully exploratory pianistics, the pensive "Night of Sorrow" does find Ellman's introductory passage imbued with a Latin feel, but elsewhere the music often speaks of the universality inherent in Galeano's prose. And Galeano's words inspire plenty of roiling energy, with Sorey a forceful engine of the band's momentum, powering through the thematic angularities of the opening "Language" while supporting Ellman and Miles features with no shortage of precisely executed accents and dynamic nuance. Sorey rolls with abandon through the jagged stops and starts of "The Kitchen," which includes a standout performance from Melford, bold and muscular in the lower register and unbridled as she takes her solo higher with inexorable force. Miles might be heard as the "soloist" in the sublime full-group improvisation of "Promised Land," but his mastery of space provides plenty of room for the other bandmembers to stand out in the mix, as Melford and Ellman stretch the underlying harmonics with their abrupt phrasing and Takeishi flirts with funk. In an echo of Ellman's mood-setting intro to "Night of Sorrow," Takeishi offers up a rumbling, harmonics-laden unaccompanied bass feature to commence "Times of Sleep and Fate," which builds from floating, contemplative ambience into a calm but uneasy resolution. After the collective tumult and abrupt finish of "First Protest," the appropriately Latin-tinged "The Virgin of Guadalupe" smoothly and effortlessly rises from balladic loveliness into freer jazz expression while never losing its thread. And the album ends on a rollicking note as Melford brings the blues to the celebratory groove of closer "The Strawberry." Snowy Egret stands equal to any of Myra Melford's quintet recordings of the past two decades -- and that's high praise indeed.