Tracing Myra Melford's influences is a bit like playing connect-the-dots on a map. She grew up outside of Chicago, but only came to work with that city's jazz pioneers in New York, years after seeing an Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians [AACM] concert while she was a student at Evergreen State College in Washington state. Her recent work is informed by the studies of Indian classical music she undertook as a Fulbright scholar in 2001, but she professes an interest in North African and Arabic music. Her musical visions are currently being realized from Berkeley, where she is teaching improvisation at the University of California.
Once those dots are connected, a picture emerges of a musician who brought barrelhouse into the avant, then backed off on her own pianisms to become a composer of striking depth. Melford has released more than a dozen records on labels from Gramavision to hatART, recorded John Cage and studied Buddhism and martial arts and has become a sort of AACM member-by-association, forging relationships with Joseph Jarman, Leroy Jenkins and Henry Threadgill.
One of the biggest turns in Melford's 15-year recording career - or at least a place to start in considering that career - is her 40th birthday, when she was given a harmonium. Her work on the small Indian instrument might be seen as linking a variety of her interests: the keyboard, of course, but also a spiritualism that led her to collaborating with Jarman (himself a Buddhist sensei) and learning the traditions of raga. Her year under the prestigious Fulbright grant resulted in a new set of compositions (for her band Be Bread) and an interest in treating the harmonium - customarily an accompanying drone instrument for singers - in the unusual role of melodic lead voice.
"There aren't very many harmonium players in India who use it as a solo instrument," she said. "Because you can't slide and you don't have the use of microtones, it makes it very difficult to play Indian music.
"I wrote the music for Be Bread a little less than a year after I got back from India," she said. "There's a gesticulation period, or a maturation period - I'm not trying to imitate what I studied. The music that I'm writing now is at an even deeper level of saturation. My goal is not to make it sound Indian but to use that experience and see how it evolves."
That evolution will be heard next year, when the Be Bread record is released. Some of the compositions will sound familiar to Melford listeners - long, bright lines led by Cuong Vu's trumpet and intricate arrangements played by a band comprised, notably, of players from Threadgill bands: guitarist Brandon Ross, electric bassist Stomu Takeishi and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee. Melford cites Threadgill's band Make a Move as one of the things that sparked her interest in the harmonium, and when, on the new record, she switches from piano to harmonium, that inspiration can be felt. As Threadgill put Tony Cedras' harmonium in front of a largely electric band, some of the Be Bread compositions are guided with a beautiful simplicity by the clattering keys and whispering bellows of the harmonium. Other tracks, like "If You've Not Been Fed", harness the rock band power of Ross and Takeishi (and their twin Klein axes), reminiscent of Threadgill, but singing with a different voice.
Melford's interest in Eastern thought also led to the founding of one of the purest, most egoless collectives jazz has seen in years. Melford studied aikido and meditation with Joseph Jarman, who famously left the Art Ensemble of Chicago (and recently returned) to pursue Buddhist studies. With AACM violinist Leroy Jenkins, the two founded the fittingly-named Equal Interest, which represents some of the best work of each of its members. The trio also represented the completion of some of Melford's many circles - not just the opportunity to combine her spiritual and musical interests but a connection with the Chicago players and that life-changing concert when she was a sophomore in college. When she saw Jenkins with Amina Claudine Myers and Pheeroan akLaff that night, she said, "It was like this light bulb went off. I thought, 'this is what I want to do.'"
She switched from her environmental studies major to focusing on jazz piano and, in 1990, released her first record as a leader. Jump featured a trio with Lindsay Horner and Reggie Nicholson and included an homage to Illinois architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The trio released two more records (1991's Now & Now and 1993's Alive in the House of Saints ) before Melford added horn players Dave Douglas and Marty Ehlrich for Even the Sounds Shine , the record where she really found her compositional voice (and which included another dedication to Wright). During that time, she also played on sessions led by Jarman, Jenkins and Threadgill ( Song Out of My Trees and Makin' a Move , the latter including the remarkable piece "Noisy Flowers", played by Melford and a guitar quartet), as well as being a part of Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris' conductions.
While working the other angles, Melford is continuing to compose for her most recent ensemble, The Tent (with Takeishi, Vu, Chris Speed and Kenny Wollesen), featuring music based on the poetry of Jelaluddin Rumi. An octet of pieces were released this year on the Arabesque disc where the two worlds touch, and a new set of pieces (with drummer Kavee replacing Wollesen) was commissioned by Chamber Music America and the Doris Duke Foundation to be presented at Jazz Standard this month.
Melford's interest in Islamic and Sufi writers comes from an effort "to have some better understanding of what's going on in the world today," she said. "I certainly have my own political bias, but I'm really interested in the larger picture of who these people are rather than the polemic that's been set up."
Turning Sufi writings into musical composition is not a "rational or linear process," she said. "To the extent that any of my music is influenced by poetry or painting or architecture, it's how I'm influenced by my exposure to it. I don't think there's anything literal about it. What I'm interested in is music as a force for healing and uplifting."
Visit Myra Melford on the web at www.myramelford.com .
Myra Melford: Mystic Manifestations
– Myra Melford - Now & Now (Enemy, 1991)
– Myra Melford - Alive in the House of Saints (hatHUT, 1993)
– Myra Melford Extended Ensemble - Even The Sounds Shine (hatOLOGY, 1994)
– Myra Melford/Han Bennink - Eleven Ghosts (hatOLOGY, 1994)
– Myra Melford/The Same River Twice - The Same River Twice (Gramavision, 1996)
– Joseph Jarman/Leroy Jenkins/Myra Melford - Equal Interest (OmniTone, 2000)