by Eric McDowell, Dusted Magazine
September 21, 2017
Context matters: The difference between coming to MZM expecting music for piano, harp and koto and coming to it expecting music by Myra Melford, Zeena Parkins and Miya Masaoka may be the difference between loving and hating the album. Of course, Melford, Parkins and Masaoka are three major names on the creative music scene, and it’s not clear who would find themselves sampling out-there bassist/composer James Ilgenfritz’s Infrequent Seams label so innocently. But imagining the hypothetical experience of hearing it “out of context” may begin to capture how surprising, strange and slippery — even to ready ears — MZM is.
In any event, it’s impossible to really hear this music without shutting out all extraneous data, so intensely focused is the trio’s playing across these ten free improvisations. There’s nothing passive about the interplay, nothing assumed about the structural relationships. While no one’s doubting their usefulness in music, patterns and repetition have a way of teaching the powers of attention that sustained effort is a losing game; their absence here is what makes MZM such an exhilarating listen — and such an exhausting one. Not that the music suffers from indecision or even shapelessness: Averaging only five minutes apiece, each improvisation explores its own discrete mode, from percussive and dense to understated and gentle, leaving larger patterns of rise and fall to emerge via their sequencing. But anything less than a note-by-note accounting seems a distortion of, and a disservice to, this music, impractical as that would be to carry out. There’s no substitute for listening: True for any music worth its salt, but somehow truer here than usual.
But if this music takes the most risks on the small scale — or asks the most of its listeners there — it makes sense to zoom back in on what’s literally at the musicians’ fingertips: their instruments themselves. Again expectations fall short. Melford supplements her acoustic piano with preparations, Masaoka expands her koto from the standard 13 to 21 strings and Parkins plays an electric harp. Even if it’s true that prepared piano lost its shock value long ago, or that we’ve seen added strings before, don’t sleep on that harp. Beyond typographical aesthetics, it’s because of this chameleonic contraption that MZM makes more sense as a title than MMZ or ZMM. From buzzsaw distortion to placid horn, from slide guitar to steel drum, the extraordinary variety of sounds Parkins coaxes from her instrument is often crucial for locating the center of balance in each improvisation. Precarious as it is, at the end of the day this balance may be the only context that counts. Love it or hate it — just try to keep up.