Clip: Myra Melford
Jazz pianist Myra Melford makes the compositional process easier than
one might imagine
Derk Richardson, special to SF Gate
Thursday, November 2, 2006
Myra Melford makes jazz composition sound easier than it, well,
sounds. Not that the Berkeley-based pianist's music is difficult, in
an elitist, know-it-all sense, let alone off-putting. On the contrary,
Melford -- who leads her acoustic quintet in a San Francisco Jazz
Festival concert, Saturday afternoon, Nov. 4, at the Legion of Honor
-- makes some of most appealing, harmonically accessible music flowing
outside the banks of today's still-post-bebop-based jazz mainstream.
But her pieces are richly textured -- rife with sonic surprises,
strangely logical-sounding convolutions and occasional jagged edges
and noisy explosions. And trying to figure out how she and her
musicians arrive in various sublime realms can be mystifying.
Nonetheless, when Melford breaks down the compositional process, as
she did last week during a conversation at an outdoor cafe on an
unseasonably warm late-October day in Berkeley, it sounds more
straightforward than one might imagine.
Born in Chicago and formally educated at Evergreen State College in
Olympia, Wash., and the Cornish Institute (under pianist Art Lande and
bassist Gary Peacock) in Seattle, Melford studied privately with
creative-music icon Henry Threadgill in New York City. "I would say
that what I learned from him in that year or two is the foundation of
my own compositional process," she explained. "The basic nuts and
bolts of how to create a piece -- I got all of that from him."
Asked to identify some of those "basic nuts and bolts," Melford
delivered a mini-lecture that even a lay person could grasp. It was
like a distilled version of what she probably offers her students in
her improvisation and composition classes at the University of
California, where she's in her third year of a teaching appointment in
the music department. "You start with a small idea," she said. "It
could be a short phrase, a rhythmic figure, even just a pitch set, in
some order, and you make all the permutations of that idea that you
"And you can apply a different system to it every time you do it: What
does it sound like backwards? What does it sound like inverted in
various ways? You can analyze it by the intervals in it, and then
transpose it by all of those intervals. You can elongate and shorten
the rhythm, expand the intervals, contract the intervals, try
different parts of it together, asking, What does it sound like if I
play two of these lines at the same time? You can derive the harmony
by verticalizing the melodic material.
"Then, Henry's got some cool ways of getting permutations from those
relationships in order to develop lots of other harmonic material,"
she added. "The idea is, you don't impose a form on it -- you allow
the form to grow out of whatever that material becomes, and then it's
just a question of playing with it. Once you actually have the piece,
then you look in there and ask, OK, how does this tell me it wants to
be improvised on? The ideal is not to just apply the licks you play on
something else, but to figure out for each piece, how do I want to
play on this?"
In a recording career that dates back to 1991, in groups she has
provocatively named The Same River Twice, Crush, The Tent and Be
Bread, Melford has experimented with those vista-opening strategies in
the company of such brilliant technicians and improvisers as
trumpeters Dave Douglas and Cuong Vu, reed players Joseph Jarman,
Chris Speed and Marty Ehrlich, drummers Michael Sarin and Kenny
Wollesen, violinist Leroy Jenkins, acoustic/electric bassist Stomu
Takeishi, cellist Erik Friedlander and guitarist Brandon Ross.
Her CD titles, including Where the Two Worlds Touch, Dance Beyond the
Color, Alive in the House of Saints and Even the Sounds Shine, hint at
an underlying philosophical or spiritual foundation that informs
Melford's approach, as well. Her new CD, The Image of Your Body
(Cryptogramophone), was recorded with Be Bread after she had spent six
months studying North Indian music (primarily harmonium, but also
voice) in Calcutta and a year in spiritual retreat at an ashram in
upstate New York.
"One of the things I notice about this music," she wrote in the liner
notes to the new CD, "is the layers of simultaneous activity, not
unlike life in modern-day India: a continual bombardment of the senses
and a mingling of the peace of the ancient with the hustle of the
present. In Calcutta, in particular, the commotion can be
overwhelming, yet at the same time I experienced incredible joy and a
certain calmness at the heart of it all."
The Image of Your Body takes its title from a poem by the Sufi mystic
Rumi. In her notes, Melford calls the poem "an apt metaphor for my own
journey of the last two years." In conversation, she explained
further: "In my own development as an artist, the meditation practice
and the kind of contemplation that's often practiced in Eastern
traditions has been enormously helpful, especially for the kind of
music I play. Improvised music is all about being in the moment, and
it's all about allowing something to happen rather than making
something happen. I can tangibly hear the difference in my music now
as compared to a few years ago. I've been playing for a long time, so
I can trust my experience, as well, but there's a difference."
Not pressing to make something happen is wisdom that Melford first
gleaned from another of her teachers, the late pianist Don Pullen,
best known for his work with Charles Mingus, in the Changes band, and
with saxophonist George Adams, in their jointly led quintet. It was
around 1989, and Melford had already studied privately with both
Threadgill and the great encyclopedic pianist Jaki Byard.
"I was still trying to bridge my interest in jazz and my interest in
the kind of sound-oriented vocabulary and 'energy thing' that was
inspired by other improvisers in the downtown New York scene," Melford
explained. "They felt very disparate -- now I'm playing tune-oriented
things and changes and now I'm playing this really out stuff -- and I
was looking for a way to synthesize those."
She had been named a semi-finalist in the Thelonious Monk Piano
Competition that year, and went to Pullen for some coaching. She told
him, "Here I am in this tune, but I hear this other stuff, and I'm
trying to figure out -- how do I get from here to there and have it be
organic?" Pullen responded, "That's a great question, and I'm sure
you're going to find a good solution."
"That was probably the best thing he could have said to me," Melford
concluded. "He made me feel like he trusted me as a musician, and that
there was something in there he heard that he respected, and that I
didn't need someone else to tell me how to do it."
The Myra Melford Quintet (with Cuong Vu, Stomu Takeishi, clarinetist
Ben Goldberg and drummer/percussionist Alex Cline) performs Saturday,
Nov. 4, as part of the 24th Annual San Francisco Jazz Festival;
Florence Gould Theatre, Legion of Honor, 100 Legion of Honor Dr. (at
Clement, in Lincoln Park), S.F. Showtime 2 p.m., tickets $25. For more
information, call (415) 788-7353.