By Andrew Gilbert
Stripped to a loin cloth, his dancer’s body gleaming with sweat, Oguri seems to slowly swim through a black-and-white street scene projected by video on the wall behind the bandstand in Duende, the Uptown restaurant and jazz club. Bass guitarist Stomu Takeishi strums an irregular pulse. Leading from the piano, Myra Melford gently alternates single notes with thick, ringing chords, accentuating the hypnotic imagery while shadowing Oguri’s movements.
Less a preview than a slice of work in progress, the July evening at Oakland’s Duende offered a glimpse of Melford’s epic new work Language of Dreams, a new Yerba Buena Center for the Arts commission that premieres Nov. 8 and 9. More than her most ambitious project ever, the YBCA piece is the latest unmistakable sign that for Melford these are the best of times.
In the midst of a thriving career on the avant-garde edge of the New York jazz scene, she decided to decamp for the Bay Area a decade ago to join the music faculty at U.C. Berkeley. Rather than suffering the usual jazz fate of Left Coast invisibility, Melford has maintained a steady upward creative trajectory, forging deep ties with Bay Area artists while continuing to collaborate with her East Coast peers. In 2013, Melford was named a Guggenheim Fellow and received both the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Performing Artist Award and a Doris Duke Residency to Build Demand for the Arts at the YBCA.
The scope of her vision has never been more apparent as she’s unveiled two projects this year embodying polar impulses. In October, Melford released her first solo piano album, Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12 Records), exploring a new book of original compositions inspired by the artwork of a family friend, the late Sacramento-based artist Don Reich (she celebrates the CD’s release with a Dec. 13 solo recital at Oakland’s Piedmont Piano). If her new album reflects Melford at her most intimate and elemental, Language of Dreams is her most expansive project yet.
Designed for the latest in a succession of smartly assembled ensembles, the aptly titled piece is a dauntingly ambitious multimedia event inspired by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, which recasts the history of the Americas via the frame of indigenous myths and accounts from European colonizers. Joining her acoustic quintet Snowy Egret with longtime comrade Takeishi on bass guitar, guitarist Liberty Ellman, trumpeter Ron Miles, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, are a bilingual narrator, Argentine jazz vocalist Sofia Rei, Los Angeles–based dancer/choreographer Oguri, and Bay Area video artist David Szlasa.
While it might seem like she’s making a statement by releasing her most stripped-down and elaborate projects almost simultaneously, Melford asserts that it’s a case of serendipity rather than careful planning. “These are two projects I’ve been thinking about for several years,” says Melford, 56. “They’re two extremes that I hadn’t addressed yet, and they just happen to be happening at the same time. I guess I was looking to push the envelope in both directions, but I didn’t have any real control over the timing. I am enormously excited, as it feels like a big accomplishment.”\
In person, Melford cuts a strikingly different figure than on the bandstand, where she initially made her reputation as a pummeling improviser with a huge sound and roiling keyboard technique. With a halo of soft brown curls framing her elfin features, she comes across as unfailingly gentle and earnest, with an almost otherworldly intelligence. While her music is rigorously conceived, it’s also boundlessly soulful, and she possesses an abundant streak of lyricism informed by her passion for classical Hindustani music, blues, and Afro-Caribbean grooves (rhythms that figure prominently if obliquely in Language of Dreams).
Her approach has evolved through a series of overlapping ensembles drawing on a dazzling array of players. Her previous album, 2011’s The Guest House (Enja), documents the ongoing, capaciously inventive collective Trio M with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson. In the early spring she recorded a duo album and toured Europe with Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg, an essential collaborator over the past decade. And she continues to take sidewoman work with rising bandleaders, contributing to Bay Area reed player Steven Lugerner’s biblically-inspired For We Have Heard (NoBusiness), and touring and recording as what drum star Allison Miller calls “the centerpiece” of Miller’s band Boom Tic Boom.
“I feel extremely tied to her rhythmically,” says Miller, who hails from the generation that followed in Melford’s footsteps. “I really look up to her, her career, and the way that she composes. She’s able to bring her own sound to my music, and to let me be the bandleader.”
Part of what makes Melford’s music so satisfying is that she draws on a deep well of roots music that she acquired at the source. Born and raised in the Chicago area, she’s strongly linked to the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the avant-garde collective that made the Windy City a leading force in the emerging African-American arts movement seeking economic and aesthetic self-sufficiency in the mid-1960s.
But she didn’t encounter Chicago masters like Leroy Jenkins, Henry Threadgill, and Anthony Braxton until she was in college at Evergreen State College in Washington in the late 1970s, when their bracing improvisational flights inspired her to pursue her own approach to the keyboard. What she did glean from her Chicago upbringing was a love of the blues, inculcated by her first piano teacher, the classically trained Erwin Helfer. Still active and widely considered a local treasure, he is steeped in Chicago boogie woogie, and spent years accompanying the great blues belter Mama Yancey.
“He introduced me to the blues as a little girl,” Melford says. “And he studied all the greats—Otis Spann, Albert Ammons, Speckled Red. I can remember a University of Chicago folk festival he played with Blind John Davis. As a kid I’d go down to a festival, and because I knew him, [I] got to hang out backstage with the blues players. Even after I stopped taking lessons in high school, if I went to hear him play, he’d invite me to play a four-hands thing. I got a taste of the real deal.”
At Evergreen, she got another dose of transcendent music, and it changed the course of her life. With many avant-garde masters performing in Olympia between gigs in Seattle and Portland, Melford had the chance to hear and hang out with sonic searchers such as Muhal Richard Abrams, Oliver Lake, Joseph Jarman, Roscoe Mitchell, and most importantly Leroy Jenkins, whose performance with Amina Claudine Myers and Pheeroan akLaff sparked “an ecstatic feeling. I thought, I’m going to check this out, and I never really looked back,” Melford says.
Upon graduating from Evergreen she studied with Art Lande and Gary Peacock at Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, and then contacted Jenkins when she moved to New York City in 1984. After honing a vocabulary of extended piano techniques, she purposefully and methodically began to develop a highly personal compositional vision informed by Caribbean rhythms, classical Indian traditions, Sufi mysticism, Frank Lloyd Wright’s design concepts, and Henry Threadgill’s cellular approach to building tunes. A polymorphously inventive bandleader with some 20 albums as a leader or co-leader, a prodigious inside/outside player with a deep feel for the blues, and a composer of spacious, incantory themes, Melford has inherited the AACM’s improvisational mantle and refashioned it for herself.
Conspicuously unorthodox, her self-fashioned route is so idiosyncratic that Melford played her first gig ever with a jazz big band a few months ago at the University of Wisconsin. Drum star Matt Wilson was also part of the proceedings, and he notes that for the vast majority of jazz musicians who come up through the high school and college music programs, playing big band charts is a foundational experience. But Melford’s development eschewed mainstream jazz touchstones like orchestral arrangements, piano bars, and exploring the American Songbook in a trio.
“She didn’t come up through the canon,” Wilson says. “She doesn’t play ‘All the Things You Are.’ She just heard a different kind of thing. I love how she just jumps in the pool. She’s a courageous improviser and her tunes are really sturdy. She’s got a serious blues feel too, and can really swing. People always think of her strong playing, but Myra’s got a sensitive side. She’s able to pull these colors and textures from the piano that are so rich you can almost bite into them.”
Given her appetite for exploring new directions, Melford is going to be an enduring creative force on the Bay Area scene. Whether inspired by a visionary Latin-American writer or a prolific, color-besotted California painter, she continues to attract improvisers eager to immerse themselves in her singular sound.
Andrew Gilbert is The Monthly’s music critic.
Piano pioneer: Musician Myra Melford has just released Life Carries Me This Way, a solo album of original compositions, and her Language of Dreams, a commissioned multimedia work, premieres Nov. 8-9 in San Francisco. Photo by Michael Wilson..
Language of Dreams, Nov. 8-9, 8 p.m., Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Forum, 701 Mission St., San Francisco, $30-$35, (415) 978-2787 or ybca.org.
Dec. 13, 8 p.m., Piedmont Piano, 1728 San Pablo Ave., Oakland, (510) 547-8188 or piedmontpiano.com.