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Myra Melford

An exploratory, virtuosic, rhythmic, and lyrical composer and improviser, pianist Myra Melford emerged in 1990 with her trio debut Jump. It reflected her primary musical mentors/influences: pianist Don Pullen, whose percussive mannerisms she successively adapted; and composer Henry Threadgill, with whom she studied in the mid-'80s. By the time the trio released 1996's The Same River, Twice, she had become an internationally acclaimed jazz pianist. The accolades afforded her wide-ranging body of work -- often carrying a strong spiritual focus -- have continued well into the 21st century, evidenced by recordings such as 2000's Dance Beyond the Color (Myra Melford's Crush), 2006's The Image of Your Body ‎(Myra Melford's Be Bread), and 2015's Snowy Egret. Melford often appears as a session player, plays in many duets and trios, and is a member of Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom. In 2017 she was one of five pianists to appear on Handful of Keys with Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra, directed by Wynton Marsalis. 2020's Stormy Whisper was in trio with Léandre and Lauren Newton. In 2022, Melford's all-woman quintet date For the Love of Fire and Water, was issued by Rogue Art. Melford was born in 1957 in Evanston, Illinois. She began taking formal lessons while in kindergarten, and later studied with classically trained boogie woogie pianist Erwin Helfer. He taught her classical piano before moving her to the 20th century music of Bartok and Stravinsky, and finally the blues. By the time she was in high school, she lost her appetite for performing classical music and quit formal studies. She attended college at Evergreen State in Olympia, Washington. While there, she saw an advertisement for jazz piano lessons in a local restaurant. With little knowledge of the genre other than that playing jazz piano involved improvisation, she began studying again. She recalled later that over the next few years, the two albums she played nearly constantly were Cecil Taylor's Air Above Mountains and Ornette Coleman's The Shape of Jazz to Come. She switched her major to music and transferred to Cornish College of the Arts, in Seattle, where she studied with Art Lande and Gary Peacock. In 1984 she moved to New York City, where she would play in the bands of Threadgill, violinist Leroy Jenkins, and Butch Morris, among others. She also studied privately with Pullen who, along with Threadgill, were true mentors. During the mid- to late '80s she performed and recorded in a duo with the flutist Marion Brandis. She also formed a trio with bassist Lindsey Horner and drummer Reggie Nicholson, with whom she recorded the albums Jump (1990), and Now & Now (1991) for the Enemy label. International recognition arrived with the release of the trio's live 1993 outing, Alive in the House of Saints on the Swiss HatHut label. As the 1990s progressed, Melford began to expand the textures and timbres available to her as a composer by moving toward larger groupings with diverse instrumentation. She added trumpeter Dave Douglas and reedman Marty Ehrlich to her trio lineup, with the resultant quintet debuting as the Myra Melford Extended Ensemble on 1995's Hatology release, Even the Sounds Shine. She formed a new quintet, the Same River, Twice, featuring Douglas, cellist Erik Friedlander, reedman Chris Speed, and drummer Michael Sarin. The group's eponymous debut arrived on Gramavision in 1996, followed by the 1999 Arabesque recording Above Blue. Meanwhile, Melford appeared as an improvisational collaborator on a pair of albums: the 1996 Hatology release Eleven Ghosts, featuring duets performed by the pianist with Dutch drummer Han Bennink; and Equal Interest, a 1999 Omnitone release by the trio of the same name, featuring Melford along AACM, violinist Leroy Jenkins and multi-reedist Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. (In 1997 Melford contributed to the Jarman/Jenkins album Out of the Mist.) The latter set saw Melford contributing to the trio's sound palette on harmonium as well as piano. As the 2000s dawned, Melford returned to the trio format with Crush, a band featuring drummer Kenny Wollesen and electric bassist Stomu Takeishi -- the latter a member of Henry Threadgill's Make a Move and a contributor to various Melford projects in years to come. Arabesque released the internationally acclaimed Crush album, Dance Beyond the Color in 2000. The following year, the same label issued Yet Can Spring, which found her in a duet setting with former Extended Ensemble bandmate Marty Ehrlich -- Melford would return to the duo format with Ehrlich on the Palmetto release Spark! in 2007. The aforementioned Equal Interest and Crush albums revealed Melford's burgeoning skill on the harmonium (a type of portable pump organ), and in 2000 and 2001 her interest in the instrument, and in North Indian classical, devotional, and folk music, would take her to Calcutta on a Fullbright scholarship. She spent nine months studying harmonium with virtuoso Pandit Sohanlal Sharma. Prior to her departure, Melford also expressed a desire to explore qawwali music with Sufi musicians during her sojourn. Upon returning to the States, Melford lived at an upstate New York ashram, and then began recording and releasing music informed by her travels and studies, beginning with the 2004 Arabesque release Where the Two Worlds Touch by Myra Melford's the Tent, inspired by the poetry of 13th century Sufi mystic Jalal al-Din Muhammad Rumi and featuring Melford on piano and harmonium along with her Crush bandmates, former Same River, Twice member Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet, and Cuong Vu on trumpet. Sufi poet Rumi also inspired the music of Melford's next album, The Image of Your Body (whose title was derived from a Rumi poem), the debut release by her Be Bread ensemble recorded in December of 2003, just eight months after the sessions for Where the Two Worlds Touch. Melford formed Be Bread expressly to play music based on her studies in India, and the group's premier recording featured Melford on piano and harmonium along with bassist Takeishi, trumpeter Vu, guitarist Brandon Ross, and drummer Elliot Humberto Kavee. The Image of Your Body was not released until 2006 by Cryptogramophone, and in the liner notes Melford described the music's "layers of simultaneous activity, not unlike life in modern-day India: a continual bombardment of the senses and a mingling of the peace of the ancient with the hustle of the present." Between the recording and release of The Image of Your Body, Melford departed the East Coast for California in 2004, accepting a position as Associate Professor, Improvisation and Jazz, in the Department of Music at University of California, Berkeley. Her new role in academia did not signal a retreat from performance and recording, however, as she embarked on a host of new projects over the next ten years, including a return to the piano trio format -- this time in a collaborative rather than leadership role -- with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson in Trio M. They issued The Big Picture on Cryptogramophone in 2007 and The Guest House on Enja/Yellowbird in 2012. Chamber Music America commissioned her composition The Whole Tree Gone, featured on the 2010 Firehouse 12 album of the same name by Be Bread, this time with a sextet including, Takeishi, Vu, Ross, Wilson, and clarinetist Ben Goldberg. Melford continued to perform and record in duo settings, with violinist/violist Tanya Kalmanovitch on Heart Mountain (Perspicacity, 2007) and in a live recording at Berkeley's Maybeck Recital Hall with fellow pianist Satoko Fuji on Under the Water (Libra Records, 2009); in another duo project, ::Dialogue::, she collaborated with clarinetist Goldberg. In 2010, she joined drummer Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom ensemble who issued its self-titled debut. And while these and other projects have included solo piano features for Melford, her first entirely solo piano album, Life Carries Me This Way, was released by the Firehouse 12 label; the album included 11 Melford compositions inspired by drawings (reproduced in the CD booklet) by Sacramento artist and family friend Don Reich, who passed away in 2010. In 2012 Melford formed a new quintet, Snowy Egret, featuring bassist Takeishi, guitarist Liberty Ellman, trumpeter Ron Miles, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey, to perform her compositions inspired by Uruguayan author, historian, and journalist Eduardo Galeano's Memoria del Fuego (Memory of Fire) trilogy at the Jazz Gallery in New York City. The following year she received a Guggenheim Fellowship and a Doris Duke Artist Award, the latter supporting her programming activities at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco. In November 2013, Melford and Snowy Egret performed the group's Galeano-inspired music in her multimedia project Language of Dreams -- that also incorporated dance, video, and spoken word -- at Yerba Buena Center. The quintet's eponymous debut album was released by Enja/Yellowbird in March of 2015. The following year she performed on the Allison Miller's Boom Tic Boom album Otis Was a Polar Bear, and worked in a duo with Goldberg on Dialogue. She then paired with electric harpist Zeena Parkins and koto player Miya Masaoka for 2017's MZM. That year Melford was one of five pianists showcased on Jazz At Lincoln Center Orchestra's Handful of Keys, directed by Wynton Marsalis. In 2018, Myra Melford's Snowy Egret released The Other Side of Air and coordinated under her own name, the collective recording 12 from 25, recorded live over four nights at The Stone in New York City. Both were issued by Firehouse 12. The following year, the trio of Melford, bassist Joelle Léandre and flutist Nicole Mitchell, issued the Rogue Art album, Tiger Trio, and played with Boom Tic Boom on Glitter Wolf. Léandre and Melford enlisted world renowned vocalist/composer Lauren Newton to join them on the freely improvised live Rogue Art date, Stormy Whispers in 2020. In 2021, trumpeter/vocalist/composer Sarah Wilson's archival Kaleidoscope appeared from Brass Tonic Records. The vault session was originally recorded in 2012, and featured Melford in a sextet with the trumpeter, violinist Charles Burnham, bassist Jerome Harris, guitarist John Schott, and drummer Matt Wilson. 2022 saw the Rogue Art release of For the Love of Fire and Water. Recorded over two days in July 2021 at Firehouse 12's studio in New Haven, Connecticut, this all-woman group -- called Myra Melford's Fire and Water Quintet -- included the pianist, guitarist Mary Halvorson, drummer Susie Ibarra, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock, and cellist Tomeka Reid.
© Dave Lynch & Thom Jurek /TiVo
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