With her ferocious, pummeling keyboard attack, Myra Melford first gained acclaim as the leader of a protean trio, a group that emerged in the late 1980s from New York’s experimental Downtown scene. Over the years she’s built a succession of creatively charged ensembles, but these days her reputation as a composer vies for preeminence with her vaunted skills as a player, bandleader and improviser. And, since becoming a professor of music at UC Berkeley in 2004, she’s steadily expanded her creative purview as an educator and curator. A series of events around Berkeley in the coming weeks capture the many areas in which she’s shaking things up.
Approached by Rob Bailis when he was Cal Performances’ interim director, Melford created a new concert series designed to provide close encounters with some of the contemporary jazz scene’s most creative players. Originally scheduled for October, the first event in the Myra Melford Jazz Platform was cancelled due to PG&E’s power shut off that weekend. The series gets its belated launch Sunday with a double bill featuring two extraordinary duos: pianist Kris Davis with tenor saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and pianist Matt Mitchell with alto saxophonist Tim Berne. In an intimate twist, the audience joins the musicians seated on stage at Zellerbach Hall.
“My priority is to highlight women and pianists who may not be household names but are becoming increasingly known in New York and Europe,” Melford says. “Originally we were going to do an evening of solo pianists but I didn’t want to leave Ingrid out, so we came up with the idea of two duos, an intimate encounter with the world of creative jazz.”
Kris Davis, 39, arrives in town with some powerful tailwinds. Her 2019 album Diatom Ribbons (Pyroclastic Records), an enthralling series of duo encounters with fellow master improvisers, earned near unanimous critical praise, including being named the best jazz album of 2019 by The New York Times. That project paired her with players with whom she hadn’t previously played with much. Her duo with the German-born Laubrock is a very different animal.
Since meeting in 2008 they’ve performed and recorded together widely, starting in the collective trio Paradoxical Frog with drummer Tyshawn Sorey. Davis plays in Laubrock’s band Anti-House with guitarist Mary Halvorson, and Laubrock plays in the pianist’s quintet, among several other ensembles that bring them together. They recently recorded a duo album that’s slated for release later this year, a project showcasing the way they like to weave free improvisation and through composed passages, “blurring the lines so it’s hard to tell where one starts or ends,” says Davis, who grew up in Calgary, Alberta.
“We just have a real sense of the language that we’ve developed. We have all that history. We’ve written for each other and improvised together. It’s like hearing two people who really know each other have a conversation. In music it’s difficult to keep those relationships going, but with Ingrid it’s been constant.”
Improvisation is the topic on hand at Hertz Hall on Saturday Feb. 15 when Melford performs her first concert with ROVA Saxophone Quartet, a meeting of Bay Area giants. She first ROVA in New York City in 1983 when the band was on its way to its historic tour of the Soviet Union. “They made a big impression,” she says.
More recently she caught several Orchestrova performances of John Coltrane’s ecstatic free jazz communion Ascension, and has performed with individual ROVA members, including Larry Ochs at a Maybeck Recital Hall concert with pianist Satoko Fujii and trumpeter Natsuki Tamura. “We’re all influenced by a lot of the same music and artists,” Melford says. “But with being here and me being in New York all those years we didn’t make a connection until now.”
Celebrating the lives and legacies of departed masters is the underlying theme of the Feb. 15 performance. Steve Adams is contributing a tribute to a dear friend, the late guitar/composer Bill Horvitz, while Jon Raskin wrote a piece inspired by the relationship between pianist Mal Waldron and soprano saxophonist Steve Lacy (whose music has long served as a cornerstone of ROVA’s repertoire). Melford has arranged a tribute to pianist/composer Muhal Richard Abrams that premiered at the 2018 Chicago Jazz Festival.
Originally composed for an ensemble featuring members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), which Abrams helped found in 1965, the piece is an episodic 20-minute work that draws directly “on material he used for some parts, while some of it all mine,” Melford says. “As a mentor, Muhal really encouraged people to be themselves.”
The Berkeley Nu Jazz Collective, an ensemble featuring Cal students studying with Melford, opens the concert playing original compositions and arrangements tunes by Melford, Linda Oh, David Virelles, Ed Blackwell, and others. She’s also teaching a new class this semester, Now’s the Time: How, When and Why We Improvise. Designed for anyone interested in improvisational thinking and how it applies on and off the bandstand, the class features numerous guest lecturers who have thought deeply about improvisation as a tool, tactic, strategy and practice.
“The idea is to experience improvisation through a lot of modalities, and to theorize about how developing skills as an improviser can be useful,” Melford says. “ROVA will be coming into the class the day after the concert to talk about the communication they’ve developed as a band and their cuing system. The class ended up bigger than I anticipated, with about 45 students.”
Melford’s work as a composer figures prominently in the Feb. 29 program presented by Cal’s new music-minded ECO Ensemble at Hertz Hall, with Melford on piano and an improvising chamber ensemble conducted by David Milnes performing a revised version of her Homogenous Infiltration (commissioned by ECO, the piece premiered last May). The concert also features pieces by Ken Ueno, Cindy Cox, Keeril Makan, and Edmund Campion.
And on Tuesday April 14 she returns to Freight & Salvage with her celebrated band Snowy Egret as part of a West Coast tour that also includes an April 17 date at Stanford. Featuring longtime collaborator Stomu Takeishi on bass guitar, cornetist Ron Miles, guitarist Liberty Ellman, and recent addition Rudy Royston on drums, the quintet is one of jazz’s most highly regarded ensembles. While the classroom soaks up a good deal of her creative energy, Melford is always ready to recharge on the bandstand. Fierce and tender, earthy and consecrated, ornate and unadorned, her music like her career contains multitudes.