Myra’s Way

Pianist Myra Melford takes on more projects than the Army Corps of Engineers. Most of them are unusual, ambitious undertakings that involve a variety of cultural inspirations, a mix of artistic disciplines and media; innovative instrumentation, and distinguished instrumentalists.

There’s her five, sometimes six-piece ensemble Be Bread in which she plays harmonium (she traveled to India to study the instrument) as well as piano. Knock On the Sky, a project premiered at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2006, combined architectural set design, Japanese butoh choreography, video, and Melford’s compositions inspired by jazz and Asian folk tunes. Happy Whistlings, featuring ensemble works inspired by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s  Memory of Fire Trilogy: Genesis, a history of indigenous America’s fall to the old world, has morphed to include dance, film and a broader array of music. The effort’s name has changed, too; it’s now Snowy Egret. Currently, her most visible collaboration, the one making an appearance Wednesday [MARCH 28] at the Gig, is Trio M with the bassist Mark Dresser and the drummer Matt Wilson. Excluding her infrequent solo work and duos with free-thinking saxophonist-clarinetist Marty Ehrlich, it’s the most modest of her projects in size. And it focuses exclusively on music, though music inspired by everything from classical Middle Eastern poetry to bit-part, comic actors.

Trio M was conceived when Melford moved to California in 2004 to teach improvisation and jazz at UC Berkeley and discovered that bassist Dresser, whom she knew from the New York music scene, had relocated to San Diego. “We used to live across from one another in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and had played together in other people’s bands,” Medford told Pasatiempo in a phone call from her campus office. “But we had never worked together just the two of us. Mark suggested, ‘now that we’re both in California, we have to play together.’ So we started playing duos and trios and we talked about who should be the drummer and we both thought of Matt (Wilson). We played a concert in La Jolla at the Athenaeum Arts and Music Library and it was such a great first concert we started brainstorming about how we could keep this going.’

The threesome released their first recording Big Picture on the Cryptogramophone label in 2007. Their most recent came late last year from the German Enja label and takes its name, The Guest House, from a poem by the 13the century Persian poet and mystic Rumi. “Basically, the poem says you should welcome everything that comes into your life whether sadness or pleasure or firestorm; that you’re like a guest house and whatever comes into your life should be welcomed. I’ve titled a number of pieces after poems from Rumi.”

The Guest House is a diverse collection of rhythms, moods and attitudes. All three members contribute compositions which explains why there’s so much varied personality on display. Melford’s pensive chamber piece “Even Birds Have Homes (To Return To)” has impressionistic qualities. Drummer Wilson’s bouncy, comedic “Don Knotts” is a smile-inducing jazz portrait. Bassist Dresser’s “Tele Mojo” begins as a free-form exchange between piano and bowed bass before becoming something of a twisted samba. Their approach, Melford said, is democratic. “We’re a trio, yes, but not a piano trio in the traditional sense. We’ve taken off from the place where (pianists) Bill Evans and Keith Jarrett took the trio is the last half of the 20th century. We really think of it as less of a piano-led group and more of it as three individual instruments finding common ground. There’s no hierarchy. Anyone can solo at any time. It’s a three-way conversation between friends.”

Melford grew up in Evanston, Illinois and shows the influence of Chicago’s Association For the Advancement of Creative Musicians, the free jazz organization that’s included such stalwart improvisers as saxophonist Joseph Jarman, trumpeter Lester Bowie, composer-saxophonist Anthony Braxton, saxophonist Henry Threadgill, violinist LeRoy Jenkins and composer-pianist Muhal Richard Abrams. She attended the Cornish College of Arts in Seattle and The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington where she studied with pianist Art Lande. Early on, she worked in the bands of Threadgill, Jarman, Jenkins and cornetist Butch Morris, experimenters all. Along the way she took lessons from respected improvisors Don Pullen and Jacki Byard, both of whom had ties to jazz legend Charles Mingus.

“Even after taking a few lessons from Don [Pullen] and Jacki Byard, people who were huge heroes to me, I still consider myself something of an autodidact,” Melford said. “At the time I took a few lessons from them, I was still trying to be a jazz pianist, learning standards and the jazz lexicon. Both of them had found their own way out of jazz stricture through working with Mingus, found their own means of breaking through those conventions that I was dealing with. When I started to do that for myself and looking for guidance, I asked [Pullen] about it and he said, ‘that’s a great problem and I know you’ll find a good solution.’ He knew it was something I had to find for myself.”

She cites Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell as being highly influential to her compositional style. She didn’t meet Mitchell until a tour of Europe on which she shared the bill with Mitchell’s large ensemble. “His approach to playing and composing, the way he develops this enormous palette of sound and color, the way he uses space, it was all terribly inspiring. It’s not that I want to sound like [Mitchell, Jarmen, Pullen, Byard] but they showed me how to find my own voice and why I should be willing to consider any idea, any art form as material for the music.”

Is that why she takes on so many projects? Does she ever feel like she’s taken on too much? “I ask myself the same thing when I’m overwhelmed with everything. Every project I do, every different person I work with brings out a different aspect of my musical expression. It puts the music in a new context for me. I’m always looking for fresh approaches and fresh ways of working. But why I take on so many [projects]? It’s just my personality, I guess.”

Wilson and Dresser have had equally distinguished and unique careers. The drummer, who’s recently gained accolades for  the recording An Attitude For Gratitude from his Arts & Crafts ensemble, is a first-call percussionist who’s worked with guitarist John Scofield, saxophonists Joe Lovano and Lee Konitz, bassist Charlie Haden and trumpeter Wynton Marsalis. Dresser, who’s resume includes recordings with saxophonist’s John Zorn, Jane Ira Bloom, and Time Berne; trumpeter Dave Douglas and composer Braxton’s large ensemble, is also known for his multi-discipline projects, having teamed with sculptor Robert Taplin, experimental film maker Sarah Jane Lapp and, like Melford, San Francisco celebrity chef Paul Canales (“Like jazz, there’s a lot of improvisation involved in cooking,” Melford said.) Melford has also been involved in Dresser’s “telematic” concerts, collaborations between musicians in different locations who communicate through wireless and various computer technologies. His first such concert in 2007 featured 30 musicians split between Stanford University, the University of California-San Diego and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY. Melford said she was skeptical of the concept at first but the results have made her a convert. “It’s more than recreating a venue at the virtual level,” she explained. “We have to ask, what is this venue, what role does the space between us play, how can we make music in the same way we communicate? It’s a fantastic project to be engaged in.”

Melford said her teaching duties have become a necessary part of her creative process as well as her career (Trio M will conduct a workshop at the Gig the afternoon before the concert). “It’s a lot to juggle but I have a really wonderful synergistic relationship with my students. I’ve become more aware of my process, more reflective and inspired by my students. Teaching is time consuming, of course, but also very nourishing to my work.”–Cabbage Rabbit




Musical Networking

Are artists creating symbols and new representations of our technologically-enhanced culture? Certainly they’re employing technology to make art, in the form of computer generated images, synthesized audio and enhanced videos. But where are the symbols, even if made using traditional methods, for the way contemporary society shares, relates and communicates? Consider cornetist Taylor Ho Bynum’s four-part suite Apparent Distance, commissioned through the Doris Duke Charitable Foundations’ Chamber Music America’s New Jazz Works Program. Despite its mostly acoustic instrumentation, it’s all here to be heard: inter-connectedness, flashing images, viral content, the rants and alienation, the unexpected crash. And it’s all done in clashingly brilliant style with old-school cornet, tuba or bass trombone, saxophone, drums, acoustic bass and one electric instrument: guitar. What’s different from all the other avant garde music produced in the last 60 years is the relationship—you might say interface—between instruments, how one speaks its mind while another, or several,  comment in real time. Tempos range from hyper to dial-up.  Mary Halvorson’s guitar provides all the static, feedback and raw power that the suite needs, even as saxophonist John Hobbs wails in human frustration. Bynum’s function is to malfunction. His cornet stutters and short-circuits before it comes up with things truly amazing. In its abbreviated-way, Apparent Distance is as distracting as texting. Ironically, the only section not available as an MP3 is titled “Source.”

The Messenger

When Gil Scott-Heron died last May at the age of 62 nearly all the obituaries saluted him as “the Godfather of Rap.” It was a title he modestly denied when I interviewed him in 1995, shortly after his recording Spirits had come out. Poet, novelist, R&B musician and social activist, Scott-Heron had influenced the rhyme and rhythms of what would become the rap movement. But the content of his message, contained in “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” “Save the Children,” and dozens of other socially-conscious songs and politically-contrary lyrics, seemed largely ignored by the commercially-intent rap movement he supposedly had inspired.

The interview was a difficult endeavor that saw him cancel an arranged face-to-face, postpone a handful of phone appointments and eventually make contact as he drove around New York’s west side. At key moments in the conversation, the connection would break up and I was left wondering what exactly he had said. I suspected the man was occupied with a mission I could only guess at. By the time he died, it was well known that the suspicions I harbored were well founded.


That someone of such achievement, someone of such compassion and determination would succumb to the very evils he had sung about in “The Bottle” and “Angel Dust” is the unspoken heart of The Last Holiday, Scott-Heron’s recently released memoir. By the time he passed, Scott-Heron had spent a fair portion of his last years in jail for cocaine possession, had confessed to battles with addiction and had revealed he was HIV positive. As a young man, he was talented, ambitious (despite “a complete dedication to marijuana”) and fearless in pursuing his goals. What happened?

The omission of any hint of Scott-Heron’s lifestyle struggles puts a huge hole in the memoir, especially considering that the book was written during those last years and that drug use may have even influenced its writing. It’s especially disappointing considering the honesty and excellence of the book’s first half.

The stand-out tune from Spirits was “Message To the Messengers,” a plea for that generation’s rap stars to show some respect for their elders and what had gone down before. ““[Rappers] have to know they’re not going through anything new” he told me, “it’s the same stuff I went through back then. They’ve got to remember it’s not about them. It’s about community and the people.”

That’s exactly what the book’s first several fascinating chapters are about, community and people. It addresses the years between his childhood in small-town Tennessee to his signing with Clive Davis’ Arista Records. This journey makes for a compelling, even inspiring story. Scott-Heron acknowledges the help he had along the way, including that from a young white English teacher named Nettie Leaf who challenged him to read John Knowles A Separate Peace, a book he thought was “white noise about white people.”  Leaf recognized his promise as a writer and helped him get into a private school that would challenge both his intellect and his social skills. He credits his mother with helping him develop his style and reveals that it was she who, “provided the punch line” for his classic complaint against misplaced priorities,  “Whitey On the Moon.” She also suggested mimicking Langston Hughes by repeating the opening line of the poem—” a rat done bit my sister Nell…”

And he worked hard. Presidential candidates who have suggested there’s no work ethic in America’s underclass should read Scott-Heron’s description of employment at age 14 as a dishwasher in a steaming restaurant kitchen and how he sometimes held down multiple jobs to keep himself in school books. It’s thrilling to read how success –not always the case–follows his hard work.

The early sections devoted to his upbringing by his grandmother in Jackson, Tennessee, his eventual move to New York to join his mother, his hot-bloodied pursuit of an education and his eventual recording success even as he coveted a career as a novelist are strong stuff, written with the kind of rhythm and word play expected of someone whose seen as a spiritual inspiration of the rap movement. But then the book changes purpose as its focus shifts to Stevie Wonder and the effort to establish a holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. It’s as if Scott-Heron has gone into denial and lost his abilities for self-examination. While the sections on Wonder are worthy in that they establish his important role in securing the King holiday –remember Wonder’s joyful 1981 song “Happy Birthday”?—we didn’t come this far with Scott-Heron to see him disappear.

Not only is the focus lost, the writing deteriorates and the book’s construction suddenly seems haphazard.  An excerpt from a long-held Scott-Heron project called “The Artist” seem to fall in as if from the moon. Chapters lurch from story to story without connection. Sprinkled throughout the text are poems, written in rhyming couplets, some deserving a backbeat and a melody line to carry their worthy message forward, clumsy others just waiting to be forgotten. When one of these poems expressing  the hope that morning coffee, “Will hit the right spot and somehow make it clear/What the hell’s going on? What am I doing here?”  we can’t help wonder right along with him.

The unevenness of the text is probably due to the start-and-stop way it was written over his last decade or so.  The book seems to be of two minds and of the two the first is better. Even as the narrative starts to skip like a damaged recording, there are some great moments as Scott-Heron jumps ahead and out of his life to consider the election of Ronald Reagan, and his feelings on joining the Wonderlove tour. We feel the innocent excitement of the book’s first half when Scott-Heron stands on stage next to a child-like Michael Jackson and when he recalls Jesse Jackson giving an election speech at the San Diego Convention Center in 1984. But largely in the book’s second half, the narrative flow, the thing that made so many of his musical verses strong, is missing.

It’s strange to realize once finishing the book that despite all the talk of “spirits” who helped him along the way he completely avoids addressing the devils that did him in. What a disappointment it is – and telling– to know that someone who wrote so honestly about his early life, who penned lyrics that touched a generation with their biting commentary and hopeful resolution, would ignore the struggle that consumed the last years of his life. The Last Holiday seems to stray from its intended themes and leave us with one that’s unintended: the messenger losing sight of the message. It’s as if he wants to tell us, as he does about his early years, but as during that long ago interview, the connection is always breaking up.–Cabbage Rabbit