Myra Melford and Leroy Jenkins: Equal Interest for All
“ But, as with much of creative improvisation, one must examine beyond the literal and superficial surface, in an effort to locate both the emotional and cerebral context. ”
In July of 1997, I won two tickets to a concert which was part of a three week "Jazz Arts Festival". This event was part of a small concert series, within the larger festival, and was entitled "Space Lives!". It was meant to commemorate the twentieth anniversary, and to celebrate the memory of, "D.C. Space", a legendary venue in downtown Washington, D.C. which featured avant-garde, jazz and hardcore groups with equal aplomb. It provided an opportunity for the capital city to shed its image of buttoned-down bureaucrats and tasseled loafer lawyers grimacing through serious minded and humorless tasks. Muhal Richard Abrams, Anthony Braxton and Sun Ra made regular appearances. As the urban area shifted from a center of liquor stores and prostitute pickups to one of luxury hotels and think tank headquarters, perhaps it was inevitable that the venue had a limited lifespan. The result was that artists were without an alternative performance space and listeners were unable to participate in the DC area's own "loft" experience.
I, however, was too young at the time to attend any of the events at DC Space. As such, the 1997 festival was somewhat fortuitous. Indeed, it also coincided with my musical development at the time. I had just read John Litweiler's The Freedom Principle: Jazz After 1958 and, armed with a newly formed acquaintance of the music of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians and its historical context, I was prepared to utilize my ticket to see the "Equal Interest Trio". It had formed relatively recently, and included pianist Myra Melford, violinist Leroy Jenkins and woodwindist Joseph Jarman. I invited a friend who, although unaware of the musical importance of these figures, had a curious disposition and a welcome of the unusual. When we arrived, it was apparent that the concert was of some considerable importance. Many of the two hundred in the audience had traveled from New York City. They exchanged serious mutterings of past events and spoke knowingly of historical venues of which I had only read.
We took our seats and witnessed the indescribable. I remember very few specifics from the evening, aside from an image of Myra Melford sitting on a cushion while earnestly pumping the bellows of her harmonium, while Jarman breathed into a flute and chanted Buddhist incantations. Jenkins utilized the wooden portion of the bow to hammer the violin's strings. I had no idea of what was happening before me. The lines were a jumbled mix of meaningless notes, swirling through the air; the ear was unable to translate the material for the mind. My friend and I left the auditorium completely perplexed. We continue, however, to speak about the event and the world of creative improvisation it introduced to us.
I have, in the intervening years, made an assiduous effort to learn everything possible about the field of creative improvisation. As a result, and for many years, I have regretted that I was unable to appreciate the evening in July of 1997 from the perspective of a truly informed and appreciative listener. I also regret not approaching each member of the trio to talk about their music. A few weeks ago, I was partially able to return to the mysterious evening of nine years ago, as Myra Melford and Leroy Jenkins graced Baltimore's "An Die Musik" for the start of the latter's Spring music series.
I have written about "An Die Musik" in these pages in the past, and find myself unable to stress the importance of this venue. It has reinstated an otherwise floundering musical community in the Washington DC area, and provides a reliable home to jazz musicians shunned by traditional venues. The Spring series welcomes Jamie Baum's sextet, Fred Hersch, and Billy Bang. I am sure that Melford and Jenkins felt welcomed by the staff and full house of expectant listeners.
The concert space is on the second floor of the row house, and the low stage is placed in front of two partially covered windows that look out upon the rear of the building. The evening was a stormy one, and frequent strikes of lightening shot from the sky to reflect its flash through the windows and the room. The result was a dramatic punctuation of the musicians' conversation. The performers noted the light effects, and told us afterwards that the display often seemed apt in the context of their ideas.
In any event, the evening, as expected, was memorable. The musicians displayed each of their personal characteristics and did not disappoint. I am also, in the intervening nine years, able to examine the music in an informed manner. I suppose that if one were entirely subjective in analyzing Mr. Jenkins' technique as a violinist, one would have to say that its problems are considerable. The bowing lacks any sort of fluidity which marks the commencement of maturity. The phrasing, as a result, can be staccato in periods of expectant calm, and sentences played with a legato sweep may awkwardly shape what should be sharp punctuation. The musical lines can be one dimensional at times, and almost lazy at other moments. Indeed, if one's ideal violinist is Jascha Heifetz or Stephane Grappelly, Mr. Jenkins' would be less than impressive.
But, as with much of creative improvisation, one must examine beyond the literal and superficial surface, in an effort to locate both the emotional and cerebral context. The construction of the improvised line must be read in conjunction with a performers' compositional skill. It is upon this examination that Mr. Jenkins is a remoarkable and creative musician. (listeners should take note of his Themes & Improvisations on the Blues issued on the always revelatory, and sadly defunct, Composers Recordings, Inc. [CRI] label, which illustrates his compositional importance in contemporary American music).
Perhaps Ms. Melford is an ideal counterpart to Mr. Jenkins. Her technical prowess is immediately evident. The touch is gentle. The dynamics quickly vary. The phrasing illustrates a performer of great emotional depth and an improviser of compositional clarity. Furthermore, she is adept at communicating her ideas in a fluid and flawless fashion. She is, in short, much the opposite of Mr. Jenkins. I often found myself focusing upon her lines weaving assertive support for Mr. Jenkins sometime tenuous violin. However, I made an effort to divert my attention from the performers individually, and noted the manner in which the two instruments were engaging one another. It was at this point that the unity in their respective approaches became clearer; each utilized a distinct vocabulary to express a similar compositional and expressive freedom. Their disparate styles actually complement one another. Mr. Jenkins' raw quality is neatly juxtaposed with Ms. Melford's polished character and the partnership works as well as seemingly mismatched performers, from Laurel and Hardy to the Odd Couple, have in the past.
After the duo played four compositions in an hour and a quarter, I spoke briefly with the artists. Each was graceful and spoke freely while giving autographs. I left the venue with a much different impression than nine years ago and with an appreciation of the freedom complicit in a composed improvisation. The music was no longer a mystery and there will be no regrets. Life is a wonderous learning process.