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