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Evolving From Freedom

Jazz Pianist Myra Melford Distills Composition From Chaos

ALONE TOGETHER: myra melford solos in good company.

By Geoffrey Himes | Posted 1/30/2008

Trio M performs at An die Musik Feb. 2.

Myra Melford is easy to overlook. Last October, sitting poised behind the grand piano at An die Musik, the short, slender woman with fine brown curls, wearing a simple black pullover and rimless glasses, didn't exactly attract attention. Melford was in town to play duets with Marty Ehrlich, and the alto saxophonist/clarinetist was impossible to miss standing center stage, with his tall frame, salt-and-pepper hair, and purple shirt.

The show began, though, with Melford's piano intro to her composition "Through the Same Gate," and her stabbing, unsettling, refusing-to-resolve chords quickly grabbed attention. Into this stormy context came a strong, singing melody first articulated by Ehrlich's alto sax. It was surprising-you don't expect to hear such lyricism cohabiting so naturally with such turbulent chords and rhythm. But there it was, and it led to an exceptionally emotional piano solo, which tilted back and forth between knotty rhythms and chiming melodies, between harmonies dissonant and consonant, between feelings tangled and untangled.

The whole show was like that-finding new ways to make the passage from visceral conflict to elegant clarity and back again feel natural, even inevitable. The result was one of the year's best jazz concerts in Maryland, and it reflected one of last year's best jazz records anywhere, the duo's Spark! (Palmetto).

Melford remembers that October evening well. "An die Musik is one of my favorite rooms to play anywhere," she gushes over the phone from Berkeley, Calif., where she teaches jazz. "I'm particularly fond of the piano there-the overtones are particularly exquisite. It's such a warm room that you can play completely acoustically. You don't need sound reinforcement at all.

"Even though Marty and I were playing improvised music out of the jazz tradition, it had the same intimacy I associate with chamber music," she continues. "It's music that's meant to be heard in a small room without amplification. If you're playing on a big concert stage or a big rock venue where the music had to be projected a greater distance, everything has to be larger, either through more amplification, higher dynamics, or broader gestures. But if you're in a small room, you can focus on nuance and subtlety more."

Melford feels such intimacy makes it easier to shift back and forth between turbulence and lyricism because it's easier to find the slight gradations where one approaches the other. For her, one of the best models of this is the often overlooked masterpiece, 1997's Colors, an unaccompanied duo album by alto saxophonist Ornette Coleman and pianist Joachim Kuhn. When she recognized the possibilities raised by that record, Melford was so excited that she wanted to form her own alto sax/piano duo, and so turned to her old friend Ehrlich.

"After all those years, to hear Ornette playing with a pianist again was very inspiring," says Melford, 51. "Because with Ornette you have so much freedom playing, and yet you have these great tunes to play. I've always felt I was pulled in those two different directions. Even when I first got to New York, got into the downtown scene and learned how I could play inside the piano and make all these other sounds, I was writing all this music that was very melodic, grooving, and harmonic. My goal in music has always been to bring together these two divergent interests-the freedom and the great tunes. The musicians who have been my biggest influences have had similar goals: Andrew Hill, Don Pullen, Leroy Jenkins, and of course, Ornette."

Ehrlich, who had recorded with both Hill and Jenkins, was a like-minded musician, and the first Melford/Ehrlich duo album, Yet Can Spring (Arabesque), was released in 2001. In addition to six originals, the disc includes compositions by Seattle jazz singer Robin Holcomb and by Muddy Waters' legendary pianist, Otis Spann. No matter how wild the improvising becomes throughout the record, there's always the sense that the music might suddenly blossom (though it never does) into lyrics for a Seattle chanteuse or a Chicago bluesman.

Last October the duo played Ehrlich's "Duiloquy" from that album. The title is a pun on "soliloquy," and there were often times when Melford and Ehrlich seemed to be speaking as one as they moved together from stately slow melodies to airy abstraction to nervously jumpy passages. The show's highlights, though, came from the new album, Spark!, in two elegies for recently departed musicians: "For Leroy," Ehrlich's tribute to Leroy Jenkins, the jazz violinist who had meant so much to both of them, and "Images of Time," which Melford had played several times as a two-piano duet with composer Andrew Hill.

"Marty wrote 'For Leroy' such that there's this feeling of being in church," Melford points out. "I always felt that way playing with Leroy-not that his music sounded like gospel but that it connected to something beyond.

"Like Leroy, Andrew was someone who found his own way to play his instrument and to write his own music. Andrew was at the forefront of innovation in jazz in the '60s-there were certain ways he played, voicings he used, that I felt a real affinity with. Like Don Pullen, he was finding his own path and not just following the conventions of jazz. That's what inspired me."

In February of 2006, Melford and Jenkins played as an unaccompanied duo at An die Musik, just 12 months before the 74-year-old jazz legend died. "I remember having a great time with Leroy that night," she says quietly. "In the first set we did written compositions, and in the second set we did free improv, and the audience was equally enthusiastic for both. There was a rainstorm, and the sound of the rain was present in the room-it became part of the music."

That duo was an outgrowth of the trio that Melford and Jenkins had formed with saxophonist Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. They called themselves Equal Interest, because Melford contributed as many compositions and solos as her much better known elders. Melford's new project, Trio M, is animated by the same democratic concept. That's even truer of the trio's current live shows, she claims, than on their 2007 album Big Picture (Cryptogramophone).

"Nowadays, we're taking fewer and fewer solos and playing more collectively," she explains. "The solo thing in jazz is so much about having one person improvise while everyone else is holding down some kind of accompaniment, whether it's chord changes or motifs. But playing collectively, no one is exclusively responsible for the foreground or exclusively responsible for the background; it's always a rotation of who steps forward and who steps back. But it's always fluid, so you can always go where the music calls for in the moment."

That approach recalls Ornette Coleman's harmolodic theory of simultaneous improvisation. But it also recalls traditional New Orleans jazz where every piece climaxes with the entire front line soloing at the same time. The new frontier of jazz may be as radical as harmolodics and as old-fashioned as Dixieland.

"Yeah," Melford agrees with a laugh. "It's almost like the cycle comes around. Or maybe it's like a spiral. Maybe you're on a different level when it comes around again."

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