Myra Melford in Helsinki in 1993. Photo by Michael Wilson
January 5, 1957|
Evanston, Illinois, U.S.
|Genres||Jazz, avant-garde jazz|
|Labels||Arabesque, Enemy, Gramavision, Hatology, Cryptogramophone, Firehouse 12, Enja/Yellowbird|
|Associated acts||Snowy Egret, Trio M, Dialogue, MZM, Big Air, Be Bread, Crush, "Same River, Twice"|
Myra Melford is an American avant-garde jazz pianist and composer. A 2013 Guggenheim Fellow, Melford was described by the San Francisco Chronicle as an "explosive player, a virtuoso who shocks and soothes, and who can make the piano stand up and do things it doesn't seem to have been designed for."
Early life and education
Melford was born in Evanston, Illinois and was raised in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. At 3, she started playing the piano on her own, climbing onto the piano bench and improvising, and began taking lessons when she was in kindergarten. She developed a strong relationship with her teacher, Erwin Helfer, a classically trained boogie-woogie player. Helfer introduced her to classical composers such as Bach before moving on to contemporary composers, such as Bartók, and later taught her to play the blues. Melford attended blues festivals, and because of her relationship with Helfer, she was often invited backstage, where she encountered many of Chicago's most acclaimed performers. Independently, Melford also began to explore improvisation.
Pushed towards performing classical repertoire, Melford attended a Northwestern University extension program in junior high school. She described her experience as a classical piano student as "not right," and while she continued to play informally, she stopped her formal studies in high school.
Melford enrolled at Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, where she intended to study environmental science. Although she was not then listening to jazz, and had not grown up listening to it, she knew that it involved improvisation, and when she saw an advertisement for jazz piano lessons in a local restaurant, she began studying again. Shortly thereafter, she switched her major to music, and in 1980 attended Cornish College of the Arts and studied with Art Lande and Gary Peacock.
|“||The flow I experience, when I'm following or allowing my natural impulse to guide the music, is really a kind of meta-flow. A state where I don't have to think about what to play, but rather I know what note, what gesture, what shape or rhythm comes next, and it's almost as if it happens without my doing anything. It's a visceral response through movement and sound to what I'm hearing.||”|
While living in Olympia, Melford met prominent avant-garde musicians including Oliver Lake, Anthony Braxton, Marty Ehrlich and Leroy Jenkins, whose performance with Amina Claudine Myers and Pheeroan akLaff inspired an "ecstatic feeling" which intensified her commitment to improvisation.
Melford moved to New York City in 1984, where she studied composition with saxophonist Henry Threadgill, whom she would later cite as a major influence on her perception of organic composition. She also studied privately with pianists Jaki Byard and Don Pullen, whose percussive mannerisms she adapted.
After arriving in New York, Melford performed in the bands of Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Butch Morris, among others. In the late 1980s she played and recorded with flutist Marion Brandis, and formed a trio with bassist Lindsey Horner and drummer Reggie Nicholson. Her career accelerated in the early 1990s, as she participated in the first Knitting Factory tour of Europe, and recorded three albums with Horner and Nicholson: Jump (1990), Now & Now (1991), and Alive in the House of Saints, a live album, in 1993.
Later in the 1990s, Melford moved toward larger groupings with diverse instrumentation, and added trumpeter Dave Douglas and reed player Marty Ehrlich to her trio lineup to create a quintet, the Myra Melford Extended Ensemble. She also formed a second five-piece, the Same River, Twice, featuring Douglas, cellist Erik Friedlander, reed player Chris Speed, and drummer Michael Sarin. Their self-titled debut album was released on Gramavision in 1996, followed by 1999's Above Blue on Arabesque. Melford also appeared as an improvisational collaborator on the 1996 Hatology release Eleven Ghosts, featuring duets performed with Dutch drummer Han Bennink; and Equal Interest, a 1999 Omnitone release by the trio of the same name, featuring Melford with Jenkins and Joseph Jarman of the Art Ensemble of Chicago. With Equal Interest, Melford performed on harmonium as well as piano. By the close of the decade, Melford had become one of the downtown jazz scene's most celebrated performers and composers, with the Seattle Times describing her in 1999 as an "explosive pianist who alternately caresses and pounds the keyboard and weaves brilliant swatches of composed material into free-form improvisation."
In 2000, Melford formed Crush, a trio in which she played piano and harmonium with Kenny Wollesen on drums and Stomu Takeishi on electric bass. Arabesque released the trio's Dance Beyond the Color later that year. In September, she traveled to Calcutta to study harmonium with Sohanlal Sharma as a Fulbright scholar. She spent several months with Sharma, focusing on raga and Hindustani classical music, and continued her studies with other musicians in Delhi and Rajistan. She additionally studied with Sudhir Nayak in Mumbai.
After returning to the United States, Melford lived at an upstate New York ashram. She subsequently formed an ensemble expressly to play music based on her studies in India, Myra Melford's Be Bread. Although it remained unreleased until 2006, Be Bread's debut album, The Image of Your Body (whose title was derived from a Rumi poem), was recorded in 2003, as was Where the Two Worlds Touch by Myra Melford's The Tent, released by Arabesque.
Melford relocated to Berkeley, California in 2004 to accept a position as Professor of contemporary improvisational music, University of California Berkeley. In 2006, along with bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson, Melford formed Trio M, who released their debut album, The Big Picture, on Cryptogramophone in 2007. It was followed by The Guest House on Enja/Yellowbird in 2012.
Melford performs with clarinetist/composer Ben Goldberg, who she met just after she moved to Berkeley, in the duo Dialogue. Melford formed a new quintet, Snowy Egret, featuring bassist Takeishi, guitarist Liberty Ellman, trumpeter Ron Miles, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey in 2012. In October, Melford won the 2012 Alpert Award for "her ascending and expansive trajectory, great, generous musical mind and her ability to take multiple musical traditions into another sphere."
Melford released her first solo album in October 2013. Titled Life Carries Me This Way, the album is a collection of work inspired by the paintings of the late visual artist Don Reich. That same year, she was named a Guggenheim Fellow and received both the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation's Performing Artist Award and a Doris Duke Residency to Build Demand for the Arts for her efforts to re-imagine the jazz program at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts; in November, Snowy Egret performed the music for Melford's multimedia project Language of Dreams, at the center.
At Berkeley, Melford has developed and taught a series of courses in contemporary jazz and improvisation-based music for performers and composers in addition to lecturing on innovations in jazz since the 1960s and other topics in contemporary improvised music.
Selected honors, fellowships, and awards
- Guggenheim Fellowship (2013)
- Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Performing Artist Award (2013)
- Alpert Award in the Arts for Music (2012)
- Jazz Journalists Association Pianist of the Year (2008, 2009)
- Jazz Journalists Association Composer of the Year (2004)
- Fulbright scholar (2000)
- New York Foundation for the Arts Composition Fellowship (1998,2002, 2008)
- Chamber Music America New Jazz Works Commissioning grant (2003)
- Jump (Enemy, 1990)
- Now & Now (Enemy, 1992)
- Alive in the House of Saints (hat ART, 1993)
- Even the Sounds Shine (hat ART, 1995) with Myra Melford Extended Ensemble
- The Same River, Twice (Gramavision, 1996)
- Eleven Ghosts (hatOLOGY, 1994 ) with Han Bennink
- Above Blue (Arabesque, 1999) with The Same River, Twice
- Dance Beyond the Color (Arabesque, 2000) with Crush
- Yet Can Spring (Arabesque, 2001) with Marty Ehrlich
- Hex (Zerx, 2002) with J. A. Deane and Joseph Sabella
- Where the Two Worlds Touch (Arabesque, 2004) with The Tent
- The Image of Your Body (Cryptogramophone, 2006) with Be Bread
- Spark! (Palmetto, 2007) with Marty Ehrlich
- Heart Mountain (Perspicacity, 2007) with Tanya Kalmanovitch
- Big Picture (Cryptogramophone, 2007) as Trio M: with Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson
- The Whole Tree Gone (Firehouse 12, 2010) with Be Bread
- The Guest House (Yellowbird, 2011) as Trio M: with Mark Dresser and Matt Wilson
- Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12, 2013)
- Everything Here Is Possible (ASM, 2014) with Alister Spence
- Snowy Egret (Yellowbird, 2015)
- Dialogue (BAG Production, 2016) with Ben Goldberg
- M Z M (Infrequent Seams, 2017) with Zeena Parkins and Miya Masaoka
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- Pariser, Harry S. (November 19, 2013). "Myra Melford's Language Of Dreams At Yerba Buena Center For The Arts". allaboutjazz.com. All About Jazz. Retrieved 20 November 2014.
- "Myra Melford: Department of Music". music.berkeley.edu. University of California, Berkeley. Retrieved 20 November 2014.
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