When pianist/composer Myra Melford left New York City for Berkeley in 2004, she was in thick of the jazz action, a mid-career master with a tangled skein of creative relationships linking her to at least a dozen of the Downtown scene’s most formidable improvisers. For many jazz musicians, relocating to the West Coast from the Big Apple would put a serious crimp in their career, but, coaxed to Cal by a tenure-track position in the music department, Melford hasn’t missed a beat.
Rather than diminishing her visibility, the pianist’s Bay Area move has coincided with a burst of activity confirming her status as a visionary bandleader with a singularly expansive sound embracing a global array of influences. While she’s known for her percussive attack and roiling keyboard technique, Melford is also a deeply soulful player with a passion for Afro-Caribbean grooves, the blues and classical Hindustani music.
Over the past seven years she’s joined forces with leading Bay Area players such as drummer Scott Amendola, bassist John Shifflett and Berkeley clarinetist Ben Goldberg, musicians featured in the new quartet she introduces Sunday at Freight & Salvage. She’s forged the deepest ties with Goldberg, who’s also a member of her electro-acoustic sextet Be Bread.
Goldberg, a creative force on the Bay Area scene since the late 1980s, concisely sums up the irresistible appeal of Melford’s music: “Fantastic grooves, real melodies, and intelligent structures. Her songs are resilient enough to reveal their depths through a diverse cast of musicians. And keeping it all together is Myra’s piano playing: calm, thoughtful, and absolutely ferocious.”
Involved with at least half a dozen projects and ensembles at any given time, Melford has several intriguing gigs coming up early next year. On January 22, she joins legendary Dutch drummer Han Bennink and San Diego-born violinist Mary Oliver, a Mills alumnus long based in Amsterdam, for a performance at CNMAT focusing on the music of avant-garde Dutch pianist Misha Mengelberg. And on Feb. 6, she celebrates the release of a new album by the stellar collective Trio M, “The Guest House” (Enja), at Yoshi’s San Francisco, with bassist extraordinaire Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson.
With an aesthetic informed by Chicago’s experimental-minded Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), Melford has forged a creative worldview through close contact with idiosyncratic conceptualists like altoist Henry Threadgill, the late violinist Leroy Jenkins, and pianist Jaki Byard.
An expert at playing within the piano, Melford may strum or pluck the strings for a harp-like cadence. Artfully employing extended technique on the ivories too, Melford might punctuate a lilting, hymn-like solo with thick, percussive chords, rolling her fists over the keyboard. She brings all her interests and strategies to bear in the classroom, where she dissects the intricacies of various schools of improvisation in jazz and beyond.
“I find that the more I have to examine my creative process to teach somebody else, the more reflective I am and the more new ideas I get,” says Melford, 54. “I seem to be working as much as ever, so it certainly hasn’t been a detriment not to be in New York, which is a great relief, because I much prefer the lifestyle here.”
Melford’s position was created in the late 1990s and first held by alto saxophonist Steve Coleman, a hugely influential player who returned to New York after a few years when the conflict between teaching and performing became too great. As a musician who honed her craft by associating with a series of mentors rather than through a conservatory or music program’s systematic course of study, Melford relishes the opportunity to help aspiring players find their own paths.
“I’m completely and utterly indebted to Myra in terms of my own performance,” says Tokyo-raised accordionist Marié Abe, who was active on the Bay Area’s new music and avant-garde jazz scenes before becoming an assistant professor of music at Boston University last year. A conservatory trained pianist, Abe grew up immersed in the European classical tradition, and found herself drawn to jazz while pursuing a PhD in ethnomusicology at Berkeley.
“I really wanted to improvise, but didn’t want to be constrained by decades of training on the piano, which was almost an extension on my body,” Abe says. “I could read music, and could perform but as a pianist I was playing as a soloist most of the time. Myra taught me how to listen to myself and other musicians, how to think about myself as a musician in relation to other people, as a team player.”
Melford’s gift for turning a disparate cast of players into a formidable ensemble can be heard on her latest recording for Firehouse 12 Records, the spiritually charged album by her sextet Be Bread, “The Whole Tree Gone.” The album captures Melford’s compositional vision in transition, as she moves away from long, episodic forms toward incantatory anthems built on alluring melodies and lapidary textures.
She borrowed the title phrase from a verse by Rumi as reimagined by Coleman Barks, which opens with a line that speaks to her move west, “You’ve made it out of the city,” a relocation that became permanent when she was granted tenure last year. The verse concludes, “Become the one that/when you walk in/luck shifts to the one/who needs it. If you’ve not been fed, be bread.”
With new compositions by Melford, Goldberg and Amendola, Sunday’s concert should offer plenty of food for thought.
Andrew Gilbert covers music and dance for the San Jose Mercury News, Contra Costa Times, Los Angeles Times, Boston Globe and KQED’s California Report. He lives in west Berkeley.
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