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Myra Melford: Mystic Manifestations

Franz A. Matzner By

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We have the opportunity to draw from a lot of different traditions and find what's common about them and also what's unique about them.
Leave the familiar for a while.
Let your senses and bodies stretch out
Like a welcome season
Onto the meadows and shores and hills.


The above lines are from the poem All the Hemispheres , by the Persian mystic poet, Hafiz. Though Myra Melford made no mention of this poem or Hafiz during our recent conversation, after listening to Ms. Melford speak, and returning to her music, these words come to mind.

Perhaps this is natural enough given that Ms. Melford quotes three poems from another Sufi poet—Rumi—on the inside cover of her most recent release, Where the Two Worlds Touch , and is herself a student of yoga and meditation. But I believe the fact that this particular quotation came to mind is more significant than simply a moment of synaptic association.

For one thing, Ms. Melford's music acknowledges no geographic or genre-defined boundary. Emerging equally from the jazz tradition, Hindustani music, Islamic music, and the Western classical tradition, Melford's compositions and performance style blend these radically diverse systems into a form so profoundly personal that, as with all great moments of ecstatic expression, it negates the division between the individual and the universal and becomes transcendental. By exposing the innermost landscape of her experience, Ms. Melford offers a work of timeless beauty.

It was my distinct privilege to speak with Ms. Melford about the genesis of Where the Two Worlds Touch , her recent studies in Northern India, and numerous other topics.



All About Jazz: Let's start at the proverbial beginning. When did you begin studying music?

Myra Melford: Well, I started playing music just on my own when I was really little—like three years old—and then started taking lessons when I was in kindergarten. I couldn't wait to start.

AAJ: Did that come from yourself, or were you guided to it by your parents?

MM: It definitely came from myself. I was the baby by many years in my family. I had older siblings who were in junior high and they were taking piano lessons. I'm sure the fact that there was music in the house made an impression on me. However, I don't remember so much listening to them play—I know my parents loved music and always played it on the radio or the turntable—but my earliest memories are just that I sat down at the piano and started to play and enjoy it. It was this great place to explore and I couldn't wait to start taking piano lessons. Then I was so disappointed when I first took lessons because it wasn't at all what I expected. (Laughing)

AAJ: I wonder how many people lose interest because of things like that?

MM: I don't know. Probably a lot. But fortunately I had a really great teacher who hung in there with me. Then, once he started to get to know me and I made an effort to play the way he was trying to teach me, we ended up having a great relationship for quite a few years when I was in primary school. He got me started on Bach—Bach was my favorite—and a bunch of contemporary composers like Bartok. And he was also a great blues and boogie-woogie player in the Chicago tradition.

AAJ: So right from the beginning you had multiple strands coming in.

MM: Exactly. At the end of the lessons he started to teach me to play the blues. I started improvising. But you know what I was doing before I started taking lessons was actually improvising and writing my own music, just with no context for it. Just my own thing. And I think—in looking back—I would say now that that's really what I came back to later in college. Just trying to figure out how to do my own thing. To use the tools I get from studying to enable me to do that. It never was right for me to try and play somebody else's music.

AAJ: Was it through your teacher or another avenue that you got drawn into jazz?

MM: It was another avenue. After I studied with him I went on to study at the Northwestern University extension program for a few years. I was sort of being pushed into this thing of playing a lot of classical repertoire and really that wasn't right for me. By high school I [had] let that all go and stopped studying. It was in college—I went to Evergreen State College which is an alternative school in Washington state, and it was there—I intended to study environmental science—where I saw this sign for jazz piano lessons up in a local restaurant and I thought, 'I know that has to do with improvisation.' I wasn't listening to jazz, and hadn't grown up listening to jazz, but knew it somehow involved improvisation. It sounded like a fun way to get back into playing music.

AAJ: Had you pretty much stopped playing?

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