It's getting harder and harder these days to categorize jazz musicians, as Tanya Kalmanovitch and Myra Melford remind us with their new release, Heart Mountain (Perspicacity Records). Both carry heavy credentials in other genres of music: violinist/violist Kalmanovitch holds a bachelors degree from Juilliard, and classically trained pianist Melford traveled to Calcutta on a Fulbright scholarship to study the harmonium. In their work they urge listeners to dispense with such categorization, however, and find "the spaces between musical genres, where music really lives, writes Kalmanovitch on her website. Free improvisation is how they occupy those spaces.
Every track on this CD, which is the first for the duo, was freely improvised and duly recorded on a recital stage at The Banff Centre in Alberta, Canada. Unlike conventional jazz improvisation, where players agree on specific melodic or harmonic guidelines within which the spontaneous composition occurs, Kalmanovitch and Melford set into their improvised performance with little discussion beforehand. The end result is a collection of 19 pieces that range in mood and temperament and, in fact, defy ready classification.
Even a cursory listen confirms the team's technical expertise in classical music: Kalmanovitch elicits gorgeous tones from her instruments, and Melford plays with alacrity and stunning precision. Technique is beside the point here, however. More to the point is the pair's musical statement of the moment, whatever its harmonic, melodic, or rhythmic genesis. In less capable hands the experiment could be quite a noisy one; what is most surprising is how much sense their impromptu music makes.
To see Kalmanovitch and Melford live is to understand their process better. The duo released their debut CD with a concert at the Tenri Cultural Center on May 13, creating four new pieces extemporaneously and playing three of Melford's written compositions. Both performers explored the breadth of sounds their instruments could produce: Melford used tape, putty, and bells on the piano strings at different times to alter their timbral quality; Kalmanovitch switched readily between lush bowing and pizzicato, straight tone and vibrato, depending on the emotional tenor at the given point in time.
The work of Kalmanovitch and Melford might not be for jazz fans expecting a clearly articulated tonal center and a predictable groove. But for listeners looking to expand their notions of what music is and could be, the pair deserves a close listen. One might come to understand that music (and other perceived realities) can be otherwise.
Personnel: Tanya Kalmanovitch: violin, viola; Myra Melford: piano, harmonium.