A conversation with Myra Melford


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You could say 2007 was a good year for jazz pianist Myra Melford , who released two different albums that garnered acclaim and landed on jazz critics' top 10 lists. Spark ! , for the Palmetto label, paired her with reed player Marty Ehrlich . On Big Picture (for Cryptogramophone ) she worked with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson as Trio M.

Saturday, Jan. 26, the Redwood Jazz Alliance brings Melford, Ehrlich, Dresser and Wilson to Arcata for a concert at Humboldt State's Fulkerson Recital Hall. The plan is to start with the Melford/Ehrlich duo, shift to Trio M, then conclude with a set by by Quartet M, a brand new group with Ehrlich joining the trio.

When Melford called last Sunday evening, she was in the midst of last minute preparation for the following day: A new semester was starting at UC Berkeley where she is an assistant professor.

What exactly do you teach?

This semester I'm teaching two different improvisation performance classes. One is based on innovative jazz of the '60s and contemporary musicians who were influenced by that music. The other is more experimental improvisational ensemble music with graduate student composers; music that calls for more experimental practices. We're going to play a piece by Roscoe Mitchell , one of his more composed pieces, and we'll play John Zorn's " Cobra ," things like that.

When you talk about jazz of the '60s, are you referring to musicians like Coltrane and Miles Davis?

Last semester we stuck exclusively to those guys: Trane, Davis, Ornette Coleman and Charles Mingus. We'll start from there and move into more contemporary music.

And is that the starting point for your own music?

Yes, I would say so.

Bebop and post-bebop, or whatever you call it...

I certainly studied bebop and got that kind of a foundation, what you might call more traditional jazz, but it was really the innovations that happened in the '60s that sparked my interest.

What was it that changed at that point?

Well, I went to hear a concert by Leroy Jenkins , who is no longer living, but he was a great violinist and composer. He was a member of an organization called the AACM, the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians that grew out of the Black National movement in Chicago. Some of the other artists associated with that are Henry Threadgill, the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Muhal Richard Abrams and Anthony Braxton. It was those artists in particular who inspired me, even though when I first heard them I didn't understand the music at all. But there was something about the music that spoke to me. It inspired me to really try to find my own voice as an improvising musician. And while I loved jazz and had studied it, and felt I was part of that tradition, it was always the artists who were innovating who inspired me.

Did you start out playing jazz piano?

No, not really. I started with classical music as a child. Along with that I got into playing boogie-woogie and the blues, Chicago style. My first piano teacher, Erwin Helfer , was a great player of that kind of music, so I grew up with that. I didn't get into jazz until college.

The show here is with all the M's.

That's right. I'm coming with Mark Dresser, bass player, and Matt Wilson on drums, and Marty Ehrlich on clarinet and saxophone.

I saw that your record with Marty, Spark! was on the New Yorker 's list as one of the top 10 jazz records of the year. I believe they described your sound as "thorny."

They might have used that word.

How do you think of it?

I think of it as quite melodic actually. We use a lot of melodies and harmonic chord progressions and different kinds of grooves. It's not like traditional straight-ahead jazz by any means. But it's using song form a lot. We base out improvisations off of songs that Marty and I each write. And since we have both been influenced by a lot of the more experimental music of the '60s and beyond, our improvisational vocabulary includes that kind of thing the New Yorker refers to as 'thorny,' those kinds of textures or whatever. But I would say it's just that there's a lot of exuberance in the music, a lot of energy. That's how I think about it."

Where do you see jazz going in the 21st century? As you've said, your starting is in the innovation that happened decades ago. Is jazz going somewhere else now?

It's always going somewhere. It's hard to say where.

For you in particular?

For me? Well, I don't know. I think I'm on this path where I'm always looking for new sounds — that may mean new instruments, or new combinations of instruments, new approaches or strategies for improvisation. The conventions of jazz prior to the '60s were that you had a tune, often based on a popular show tune or a popular song of the day; the musicians then borrowed that harmonic progression, perhaps wrote a new melody for it, and then improvised over those chord changes making new melodies to go with them, but staying within that song form.
What I'm interested in is, how else can we improvise? Well, we could use improvisation as a bridge between two written sections that have no chord progression or no rhythm per se, where it's completely up to the improvisers to come up with their own rhythm or chords to get from Point A to Point B. Or, what are the different ways that some musician can play composed music while others are improvising, not necessarily taking a featured solo, but improvising their line within the larger fabric of the piece? Those kinds of things.

Listening to what you’ve done on record, at times it seems like you and Marty will solo at the same time, if that's possible.

That’s often the case. You might call that collective improvisation. That's certainly a big part of my music. The other thing I'm interested in is blurring the line between composition and improvisation. It's not as obvious as a soloist stepping forward to play a solo.

When you speak of composing, does that mean you give charts to the rhythm section defining their parts, then take off from there? Or is it more organic where you just set a starting point and see where it goes?

Well, we do both. In this concert you'll hear in Arcata — which will be both the trio and the duo with Marty, and part of the time as a quartet as well — we will do some things from written charts. In most cases that's our jumping off point. I think of starting with a chart as a means to focus our ideas as opposed to the chart being the composition. It's really more of a starting point. From there we'll talk about all the ways we can arrange it or improvise on it. And we'll often approach a piece differently from night to night.

And all of this is original music, not starting from standards...

Exactly. All four of us in the quartet are writing, so we'll play pieces by each of us. Marty and I have some pieces we play written by other composers, but again, they're not pop songs. We play a piece by Andrew Hill and we'll probably play a piece by Robin Holcomb, so other composers of the kind of music we already play.

And what kind of music is that?

(She laughs.) I bet if you ask Marty or Mark or Matt, you'd get four different answers. I guess I'll venture to say it's progressive jazz.

As to the format for the concert, you say you'll play with Marty as a duo, and with the rhythm section as a trio...

I'm going to object to you talking of them as a "rhythm section." We don't think of it that way. We have three instruments that all are capable of playing melody, all capable of playing rhythm, all capable of playing harmony. It could just as well be piano, violin and a tuba. What I'm saying is, we don't see it as a traditional piano trio with a soloist. To answer your question, the three of us will play, Marty and I will play as a duo, then we'll all come together as a quartet.

Is that something you've done often?

No, this tour will be the first time we've done that. But Mark and Marty have played together a lot over the years and Matt has played in Marty's band, so there's a lot of overlap. We've all played with each other, but not actually as a quartet.

I understand you got a grant to study music in India a few years back. How did that affect the course of your own music?

I went there to study Hindustani music on the harmonium, a small hand-pump organ. I was already playing the harmonium a little bit, kind of, again, influenced by the musicians from the AACM who were big advocates of multi-instrumentalism.
I thought, 'Well, it's great playing piano, but it would be good to also play some other keyboards. At that time I wasn't as interested in electronic music as I am now. I wanted an acoustic keyboard so I chose the harmonium and decided to study through a tradition that really used it as a serious instrument, as it's used in Indian classical and devotional music.
My intention was never to become a performer of that music, but rather to allow the experience of immersing myself in the culture to inform my own music. Certainly it's influenced me. I've used ideas from that music. It's a modal-based music, so I developed new techniques for playing modal music within what you typically think of as jazz modalism.

I think of the harmonium as a drone instrument...

No, that's not really true. You may be thinking of a shruti box. A harmonium is a two and a half octave keyboard with all 12 pitches, just like a piano does. It's typically used in Indian music to accompany a vocalist by shadowing the melodies the vocalist is singing. So it's not holding a drone the way a tamboura or a shruti box would. It plays melodically. In Kawali music they really rock out on it. They play a lot of chords and do interesting rhythmic things with it. All of those things influence the way I use it.

As you mentioned when we started, you're getting ready for your other job, teaching improv. How do you teach someone to improvise?

That's a really good question. I'm still asking myself that one. I basically teach the way I learned. I learned by having a bunch of great improvisers point me in the right direction. I try to do that. I can serve as a mentor and a model for my students. I can explain to them what I'm doing when I'm improvising, but I mostly encourage them to find their own way, and try to give them the tools they need to do that.

You say you explain what you're doing when you improvise. What are you doing?

I can talk about it in the abstract or in fairly concrete terms. I'm feeling a sense of rhythm, but only stating it sometimes, and I can state in either of my hands. Then I've developed a certain vocabulary, ways of playing the piano; I can demonstrate that. I can demonstrate how I interact with other musicians when we're playing, how I stay centered between hearing what they're playing and impulses I feel coming up in myself, constantly mediating between those two things. Things like that.

One more question, a big one: Why this path?

Oh gosh. I guess because I didn't have a choice. I can't tell you how many times I've thought, isn't there something else I could do with my life, something to make more money, or I don't know, something to contribute something more to society. But since I was a little girl I always knew I was going to be a musician.

I'd say that's a contribution to society.

Well, thank you.



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