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Myra Melford on Jazz’s Cutting Edge and Improvisation

February 3, 2020

Myra Melford has long explored the outer reaches of improvised and composed music and shared her discoveries around the world. After college in Washington state, she established a long-held base in Manhattan’s downtown avant-garde scene. Although she maintains that connection, we can count ourselves lucky that she now maintains a home in the Bay Area; a 16-year job teaching improvisation and composition at the University of California, Berkeley; and a role as curator of jazz programming with the campus’s Cal Performances organization.

On Sunday, Feb. 9, Berkeley’s Zellerbach Hall will host the second part of Melford’s Jazz Platform series, whose launch last October was interrupted by PG&E’s fire-related shutdown of power to the campus. Billed as “An Evening of Jazz Duos Onstage,” the concert will draw on Melford’s sustained New York connections. In the 1980s, she studied composition there with saxophonist Henry Threadgill, one of the members of the visionary Chicago-based Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians. Melford also participated in the first tour of Europe with avant-garde jazz musicians from New York’s Knitting Factory and performed and recorded with her own small and midsize like-minded ensembles.

A technically thrilling pianist, Melford began lessons in kindergarten in Chicago and learned classical repertoire with Erwin Helfer, alongside blues and boogie-woogie (which she’s sometimes called on to showcase). In college in Washington she studied environmental science but switched her major to music, extending her training at Seattle’s visionary Cornish College. Having abandoned classical piano training in high school, she turned down an acceptance at the New England Conservatory in favor of seeking new sounds and approaches. In the midst of working up a syllabus for her new spring semester class at UCB, Melford spoke with SFCV by phone.

You and I first talked a week before the Jazz Platform’s scheduled start at the end of last October. Can you recap how PG&E affected your plans?

It was just part of this preemptive move by PG&E to try to ward off the possibility of fires during a time when there’d be very high winds. We literally got word during our event at the [campus’s] Townsend Center, which was a panel discussion on the subject “Thinking About Composition.” So we found out on Friday that they were shutting down campus on Saturday ... so we couldn’t do our workshop [on improvisation, with Melford and bassist Lisa Mezzacappa] and we couldn’t do our concert [a double bill of the David Virelles Trio, featuring Marcus Gilmore and Rashaan Carter, and the composition Spider Web by Nicole Mitchell, featuring Josh Kun]. Whether that concert gets rescheduled, I’m not a hundred percent sure, and the workshop we’ll do later in the spring, in conjunction with a new class I’m teaching about improvisation, or we’ll do it next year, as one fo their future jazz concerts.

You’d already planned the February segment of the series, with two duos of saxophone and piano. What’s behind what we’ll be hearing on that evening?

What really prompted it was two things: the fact that I wanted to feature some really amazing younger pianists on the scene, and that I wanted to make sure to include a healthy number of women in the Jazz Platform.

There are two women — Ingrid Laubrock on saxophone and Kris Davis on piano — but the other duo is two men, Tim Berne on saxophone and Matt Mitchell on piano. Was the duo arrangement also a factor?

You get to hear so much more than when there’s a drummer and a bass player, or a more traditional rhythm section. It’s more immediate, more audible, there’s less going on, so it’s more intimate. You can really hear what sounds like a conversation between great musicians.

From what I’ve witnessed on YouTube, there are differences between these duos that don’t have anything to do with gender.

Every one of these players has a unique voice, they’ve developed their own language and ways of communicating with each other. Tim Berne is someone who had been making creative music in New York before I moved there, and he’s working with a younger musician [Mitchell] with whom he has great affinity and empathy. They came together for this concert ... They’re primarily playing Tim’s music. It’s not a collective to play his music, but they have a record, Angel Dusk, on Tim’s label, Screwgun [2018]. Tim is always trying new ideas, and I got the impression that the music they’ll play on this concert is very melody-based, and that the improvisations will use those melodies as a point of departure. Maybe that’s different from some of the work Tim has done, based on little rhythmic cells or denser harmonies.

And the women?

Kris and Ingrid are more of a collective, they’re making a duo record which is coming out this spring on a Swiss label [Intakt Records], and they take a much more collective approach to how they arrange and improvise. They both write for their duo, so their set will feature compositions by each of them. My impression from them is, they’re working toward a kind of seamless integration of composition and improvisation. So we may not know all the time, are they playing something which is through-composed, or is this the place where they’re improvising. Kris has a record out that’s topping all of the critics’ best-ofs for 2019 [Diatom Ribbons on Pyroclastic Records, behind which she appeared in ensemble at SFJAZZ last October]. It’s a very interesting, eclectic mix of genres and creative improvisation. I think all the musicians in this concert are thinking about, what is jazz in the 21st-century?

It sounds like we’ll witness variety over the course of your evening.

I think it’ll be interesting to hear them back-to-back, live. While playing the same instruments and being part of more or less the same circle of musicians, what kind of aesthetic do these two duos share, and how do they differ?

I see that you yourself have worked with one of the saxophonists, Ingrid Laubrock.

She’s a member of a new ensemble of mine, the Fire and Water Quintet, which will be recording in early June for this label based in Paris, called RogueArt. I have two records out with them with the Tiger Trio collective, me and Nicole Mitchell and Joëlle Léandre.

I assume there isn’t an intended reference to PG&E in the quintet’s name.

I’m going through a Cy Twombly obsession, and he has a work called For the Love of Fire and Water [oil and oil stick on paper, 1985], which is at the Brandhorst Museum in Munich ... I thought it would be a good name for a band that has a lot of different energetic environments that we like to improvise within. And I feel like a lot of his drawings look like they could be graphic scores. My current obsession with Twombly has been going on since the second record with Snowy Egret [Melford’s quintet, which appeared at SFJAZZ in 2018]. I’ve got some big projects based on Twombly coming within the next couple of years.

You’ve usually juggled a panoply of ensembles, as well as guesting with others’ groups.

In the Bay Area, I’m presenting Snow Egret at Freight & Salvage on April 14. And I’ll be playing in the Other Minds Festival 25, April 2–5, all improvisation. I’m playing the festival’s opening night in a trio with a bassist from San Diego named Mark Dresser, and a butoh-trained dancer from L.A. named Oguri.

And you’re gigging across the country and overseas. How does teaching figure in that busy schedule?

I’ve found that teaching has really inspired my own musical practice. Not only am I offering something, I’m also getting a lot out of being a professor here. The students are fantastic, I’ve gotten to work with some great ethnomusicology students, and some of my jazz and improv students have gone on to great graduate programs and professional careers. My colleagues are inspiring — my colleague [clarinetist] Ben Goldberg is now teaching here with me — and I’m learning a lot and continuing to grow.

Is your department evolving in its relation to what might be called new music?

I’ve seen a big change in terms of a recognition of the importance of performance and music-making within what was traditionally a more scholarly and theoretical and academic program. And I’ve seen an openness and embrace of improvisation as a valid and important form of music-making, along with composition. And the nurturing of musicians who are both composers and performers.

You’d mentioned your new spring semester class.

It’s called Now’s the Time: How, When, and Why We Improvise. It’s a class for both musicians and non-musicians, majors and non-major undergrads, that looks at improvisation across disciplines, using jazz in this improvised world that I’m in as a rubric or a lens through which we can investigate: what is improvisation, how do we improvise, what kind of skills does an improviser have to develop? I’ve got guests coming from all over campus, and a few from the community, to present on improvisation in their fields. An instrument designer named Tom Nunn is coming in, early in the semester, and he’s got a design for the class where the students will build their own instruments. They’ll have to develop a vocabulary for it, they’ll have to make sounds on it, and then make music with each other. We’re living in an age when people are really interested in improvisation, it’s really popular in business management, physics, computer science, and theater, for example.

And you’d spoken about musical events linked to the improvisation class.

I’m presenting a concert at Hertz Hall [on campus] on Feb. 15, with the Rova Saxophone Quartet. My advance student ensemble, the Berkeley Nu Jazz Collective, will open. And then I’ll play a set of music for saxophone quartet and piano, an episodic piece I wrote for [multi-instrumentalist and educator] Muhal Richard Abrams, and then pieces by [Rova’s] Steve Adams and Jon Raskin. Then, on Feb. 29, I’m having a piece that I wrote for the San Francisco Contemporary Music Players performed by the Eco Ensemble at Hertz Hall, alongside compositions by other faculty.

Will those two performances be open to the public as well as to the class?

I think you can buy tickets for the Feb. 29 event through Cal Performances. [Tickets for the Feb. 15 event are available online here.]

How does the classical training you began with as a child come into continued use?

It taught me about approaching the piano technically. I also absorbed a certain amount of the sound and feeling of the music I studied growing up. As a child, what I loved about Bartók was his interest in folk music, I could hear that, in Mikrokosmos and the other things I played as a kid. The harmonies sounded good to me, they sounded right, so different from Bach and Beethoven and Brahms and so on. There was something fresh about it, and I think I’ve been looking for that freshness in harmony and language — as a composer, rhythmically, melodically — in every way, ever since then.

You’ve also referred to chamber music as a useful model.

I started thinking about my own music as chamber music, coming out of the jazz tradition, when I put together a band in the mid-’90s called The Same River, Twice. In that band, I replaced the bass with a cello which could play some bass functions but also play melodically. More recently, I’ve been working with classically trained chamber musicians and getting them to start to improvise. I’ve been interested in blurring the boundaries between classical music and experimental music and jazz and improv ever since I arrived on the downtown New York scene.

When I did my SFCV preview of SF Music Day last year, I noted you’d be there on a women’s panel on the topic of “Equity and Opportunity.” What came up?

I can certainly point to a lot more younger women coming into the field than when I was starting out. But there are still far fewer women, there are still issues with equity in terms of pay and the kind of educational opportunities young women get who want to get into jazz and improvised music. I don’t know what the answer is exactly. But we talked about different ways we can support and encourage younger women. Some of this involves foundational support, and Chamber Music America in New York has just started a new program where younger women bandleaders and composers are being mentored by more established women. Of course, so much funding has been cut to primary and secondary school music programs. But there again, girls need to be encouraged to take up the instruments we traditionally associate with boys: the horns, the drum kit, the bass, etcetera.

Jeff Kaliss has featured and reviewed classical, jazz, rock, and world musics and other entertainment for the San Francisco Chronicle and a host of other regional, national, international, and web-based publications. He holds an MFA in Creative Writing from San Francisco State University, and is the author of I Want to Take You Higher: The Life and Times of Sly & the Family Stone (Backbeat Books) and numerous textbook and encyclopedia entries, album liner notes, and festival program notes.