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‘The music is what it is’
Myra Melford on inspiration and the compositional process

| 20 October 2004


Myra Melford takes a hands-on approach to musical instruction. (Wendy Edelstein photo)

Avant-garde? Progressive? Hear for yourself
"Everything Today" from Myra Melford's "Where the Two Worlds Touch" CD (MP3 3Mb download)
Myra Melford sometimes finds herself called an avant-garde musician, a label that doesn’t exactly delight the jazz pianist/composer. Pushed to categorize her work, the music department’s newest faculty member chooses “progressive jazz,” but she would rather skip the whole exercise and just describe how it sounds.

“I think ‘avant garde’ might be a little misleading, because we often think of it as atonal, and there’s a lot of harmony, melody, and rhythmic grooves in my music,” says Melford, who uses jazz as a springboard to create her textured, exuberant, and soaring compositions.

Labeling music is nothing new, says Melford. She recalls that when Duke Ellington was writing suites and sacred music, he was asked whether he considered that music to be jazz. “It’s just music, when it comes down to it,” Ellington answered.

And that’s how Melford sees it. “Ultimately, the music is what it is,” she says, “and everybody is going to have their own relationship to it regardless of what you call it.”

A 20-year veteran of the New York City jazz scene, Melford has taken a position at Berkeley that calls, aptly enough, for improvisation. She has accepted a half-time assistant professorship “to figure out how to expand the jazz performance possibilities” for Berkeley students. The department currently offers a jazz-theory course in which students do some ensemble playing, but overall, Melford says, the department’s emphasis is more on composition.

In her first improvisation ensemble class at Berkeley, Melford is offering students an overview of music that “comes out of a jazz tradition that’s not straight-ahead.” In straight-ahead jazz, musicians play the song’s melody, then soloists improvise new melodies over the chord changes, never straying far from the theme. Melford is focusing on her contemporaries and mentors in the year-long course. This semester she’ll include clarinetist/saxophonist Marty Ehrlich, former Art Ensemble of Chicago member Joseph Jarman, and violinist/composer Leroy Jenkins. She’ll feature trumpeter Dave Douglas, her mentor, Henry Threadgill, and her own music next semester.

When Melford writes her own compositions, she first considers which of her five groups she’ll be writing for. Equal Interest, a trio, includes Jarman on flute, alto saxophone, and a variety of other instruments, and Jenkins on violin and viola. She also plays in a duo with Ehrlich, and will be starting another duo soon with bassist Mark Dresser, who recently joing the faculty at UC San Diego. A quartet, be bread features Brandon Ross on guitar and banjo, Cuong Vu on trumpet (depending upon which one is available), Stomu Takeishi on bass, and Elliot Kavee on drums.

Her latest working ensemble, The Tent, is a flexible group of five musicians with whom she works in different settings, either as an electro-acoustic quintet or a drummerless trio of trumpet, bass guitar, and piano/harmonium. The group features Cuong Vu on trumpet, Chris Speed on clarinet and tenor saxophone, Stomu Takeishi on electric and acoustic bass, Kenny Wolleson on drums, percussion, and sampler, with Melford on piano and harmonium. Last year the group released its first CD, “where the two worlds touch,” on the Arabesque label.

Why the different lineups? “Sometimes, halfway through writing a song, I think it would sound better with a different band,” says Melford. “Sometimes it’s just interesting for me to hear other bands play the same music, because the instrumentation and personalities are different.”

What should the bass do?

Her writing approach varies. “Sometimes I’ll first write the material and then orchestrate it,” she explains, “and other times I will actually hear a particular part for an instrument and think, ‘What would I like the bass to do while the trumpet is playing that?’” It’s not unusual, she says, to have to figure out at the end what she herself will play, because she’s written the other band members’ parts first. And when she composes for a group that includes other melody instruments, such as the trumpet, saxophone, or clarinet, she “tends to use the piano less melodically” and then has to “go back and figure out what the texture is that I hear on the piano.”

Several years ago, Melford wanted to take up a second instrument, to express herself “through a different sound and color.” She chose the harmonium, a small hand-pump organ traditionally used in Indian and Pakistani devotional music.

“It just made sense to go to India” to study the instrument, says Melford, a student of meditation and Indian philosophy. She traveled to Calcutta on a Fulbright scholarship in 2000-01, studying Hindustani classical music in addition to various kinds of devotional and folk musical traditions. Melford, who “loves to play and listen to Indian sacred music,” says that tradition now informs her own compositions.

The work of the Persian poet Rumi has inspired her most recent projects. “I like to work with the images that come from poetry,” says the composer, “and I especially like taking them out of context.” Her forthcoming record takes all its titles from a Rumi poem called “The Image of Your Body,” which, Melford says, “in retrospect turned out to be very autobiographical.” She quotes from the poem: “You made it out of the city, that image of your body trembling with traffic and fear slips behind.” For Melford, who moved to Berkeley because she wanted to try living in “a less urban environment” than New York City, the work turned out to be prescient indeed.

The campus community will get a chance to hear Melford’s music next Wednesday, Oct. 27, when she is featured in the weekly Noon Concert in Hertz Hall. She plans to play her own compositions as well as pieces by some of the musicians she works with — Marty Ehrlich, Jenny Scheinman, Henry Threadgill. “I think I’ll try to present a little variety of how I like to play — it won’t be all song form — to give people a sense of who I am as a pianist and musician,” she says.

For information about the music department’s Noon Concert series, now in its 52nd season, visit music.berkeley.edu/noon.html or call 642-4864.