One of the pleasures of jazz is that it’s possible to experience the music’s most profound improvisers in grand concert halls and storefront dives, some times in the same week. Take pianist Myra Melford. Last month, the pianist performed with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra when Wynton Marsalis’s big band kicked off its home season in New York performing her rambunctious tune “The Strawberry” (she joined the orchestra in Oakland last week, reprising the arrangement at the Paramount Theatre).
In a radical change of setting, Melford performs Tuesday at the Berkeley Arts Festival space with clarinetist Ben Goldberg as part of 2 + 2, a double duo program with saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and drummer Tom Rainey. Returning to a grander stage, she’ll be at Zellerbach Hall on Nov. 19 when Cal Performances presents her celebrated band Snowy Egret playing her multimedia work Language of Dreams. Before the concert I’m presenting her with the Jazz Journalists Association award for Midsize Ensemble of the Year.
The JJA honor is just the latest that Melford has earned over the past decade, a gloriously productive period during which she’s been recognized with numerous awards, fellowships, commissions and grants that speak to her rarified status in the jazz firmament. As a pianist, composer, bandleader and music professor at UC Berkeley, she’s earned international esteem as an artist extending idioms introduced in the 1960s and 70s by left-field innovators such as Henry Threadgill, Leroy Jenkins, and Don Pullen.
Melford’s deep ties to the avant garde are what make her collaboration with the Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra such a watershed. Created in the image of founding artistic director Wynton Marsalis, the organization has long marginalized jazz currents that don’t necessarily involve swing, the traditional pulse that defined jazz’s feel until the mid-60s New Thing. Which is why Melford responded with skepticism when she got the call about working with the orchestra. “I said I’m only going to do this if I feel like I can be myself, and Wynton was fine with that,” Melford says.
JLCO saxophonist Ted Nash wrote the arrangement for “The Strawberry,” a piece from The Language of Dreams, and the first time she had a chance to play his chart was at the rehearsal with the orchestra. Arriving in the New York frazzled after a redeye flight, she walked into a bustling room, a situation ripe for a train wreck.
“A rehearsal in those situations is a very public thing,” she says. “The place is full of staff and donors, but Wynton made me feel so at ease. He’s as charismatic in person as he is on stage. I didn’t expect that, having lived through the 90s in New York. From the moment I walked in I felt like this is a very special organization. Everyone who I encountered, from the ushers to the guys in the band to staff members Jason Olaine and Georgina Javor, everybody loves their job and is so friendly.”
She’ll be performing at Jazz at Lincoln Center again in March as part of a program led by trumpeter Dave Douglas celebrating the vital loft jazz scene of the 1970s, another sign of détente in the jazz wars of the ‘90s. Another indication that the old divisions are starting to fade away is that Melford played a solo piece at the JALC season opener by the late pianist/composer Andrew Hill, “Images of Time,” and had a chance to evoke his legacy.
“I got to talk about Andrew Hill and some of my other mentors, Jaki Byard, Don Pullen, and Cecil Taylor, in that arena, and there was a really good response,” Melford says. “Wynton and all of the guys made me feel very welcome and were so excited to play my piece.”
Since moving to Berkeley in 2004 she’s had some prime opportunities to share her music here, though the Nov. 19 Zellerbach performance is her first restaging of Language of Dreams since it premiered in November of 2013 at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts with the support of the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Performing Artist Award and a Doris Duke Residency to Build Demand for the Arts.
An ambitious multimedia work inspired by Uruguayan writer Eduardo Galeano’s Memory of Fire trilogy, which recasts the history of the Americas via the frame of indigenous myths and accounts from European colonizers, the piece features her quintet Snowy Egret with long-time comrade Stomu Takeishi on bass guitar, guitarist Liberty Ellman, cornetist Ron Miles, and drummer Tyshawn Sorey (who presented an ambitious work of his own at Zellerbach in June based on the life of Josephine Baker). With New York-based Argentine jazz vocalist Sofia Rei reading Galeano’s text in English and Spanish (she performs with her own trio Oct. 28 at La Peña), evocative video imagery by David Szlasa, and quietly mesmerizing butoh-inspired dance by Los Angeles-based Japanese choreographer Oguri, Language of Dreams is a singularly arresting experience.
Tuesday’s Berkeley Arts Festival performance continues her creatively charged partnership with Ben Goldberg, which produced an enthralling duo CD earlier this year Dialogue (BAG Production Records). Rainey and the German-born Laubrock are also a formidable unit that recently released a duo album, Buoyancy (Relative Pitch). At some point during the show, the duos will come together for some quartet pieces.
“Ingrid is fabulous saxophonist and a great composer,” Melford says. “She emailed around 2004 and asked if she could study with me. She had a grant, and came out to Berkeley for a few intensive lessons in one week. I was very impressed with her composing and I’ve been keeping an eye on her.”
A whirlwind of activity on top of her teaching responsibilities, she recently recorded with a new collective ensemble, the Tiger Trio, with flutist Nicole Mitchell and bassist Joëlle Léandre, and she’s finishing up an album with another all-star group, Trio MZM with koto master Miya Masaoka and harpist Zeena Parkins.
She’s working with Berkeley producer Hans Wendl on recording a second Snowy Egret album next year, and the label Firehouse 12 is releasing a DVD of 12 videos gleaned from her week-long March 2015 residency at the New York City performance space The Stone, a career retrospective featuring a dazzling cast of musicians. Given all that, Melford still acknowledges that there’s something special about being welcomed by Jazz at Lincoln Center. “On a personal level it’s a huge affirmation for me,” she says. “A big high.”
Andrew Gilbert writes a weekly music column for Berkeleyside. He also reports for the San Jose Mercury News, San Francisco Chronicle, and KQED’s California Report. Read his previous Berkeleyside reviews.
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