The Turnaround!

Previously Published Articles, Essays and Reviews
Bill Shoemaker

Let's Cool One: Chamber Jazz

Myra Melford: In The Making

This 1996 essay was originally published in the catalog for Let’s Cool One: Chamber Jazz, a festival produced by Wiener Musik Gallerie.

(Click on the footnote number to read the note.)

The legacy of late 20th-century composition is the empowerment of the performer. Post-serial composers and their jazz-affiliated counterparts have radically altered the role of the performer through the mutability of their works. The performer is no longer a conduit for the composer's will, or even an indulgent interpreter, but an enfranchised collaborator. Ironically, to achieve this, a composition must be essentially incomplete when handed to the performer; incomplete not in the sense of lacking design or impetus, but in the sense that the composition is still in the making.

Arguably, it is ideal that compositions remain perpetually in the making. Otherwise, the work is fully realized, becomes definitive (most likely because of a recording), and is consigned to history, petrified. The long-term vitality of a composition depends upon the ability of composers and performers to prolong its gestation. To do this, composers not only have to articulate their own symbiotic relationship with performers, but also the yeast-like dynamic between structure and process.

Unsurprisingly, composers who are also gifted improvisers, who perform their works with an ensemble of peers, convey this articulation in the clearest, most cogent terms. Their compositions are crafted, formal, and yet open-ended. Their identity emanates from every aspect of the score, yet the composition provides a clean canvas for the performer to make his or her mark. It is work that is both erudite and naive; one moment it extends the highly charged post serial-jazz dialectic that spawned, among others, Earle Brown, Anthony Braxton, and John Zorn, then bypasses it the next with a Jack Teagarden-like "let's blow" directness.

Myra Melford arrived at this rarefied juncture by an intriguing, unlikely route. Upon her 1984 arrival in New York, the pianist paid the requisite dues as student, sideman, and journeyman leader, but not necessarily in that order. (1) Yet, the distinguishing feature of Melford's career has been the deliberate, if not modest pace at which she has arrived at the forefront of American composers and improvisers. It has been six years since the making of her first album, Jump (Enemy) (the first of three consecutive discs featuring her trio with bassist Lindsay Horner and drummer Reggie Nicholson.), but only two since Even the Sounds Shine (hatART; 1995), her first recording to feature even a conventionally configured quintet.

Her incremental, unassuming ascendancy is also a function of the US jazz media's snail-like pace in recognizing Melford's originality. Typified by Suzanne McElfresh's 1990 Down Beat profile, Melford's music was pegged as "a reinterpretation of the jazz and blues heritage. Melford's music isn't mainstream jazz, though the band does shift into the occasional groove; not blues, though the music is colored with an optimistic melancholy; it's not even free playing, though the music features a healthy dose of sharp-edged dissonance and fractured rhythms." Three years of trio albums (including Now and Now [Enemy; 1992] and Alive in the House of Saints [hatART; 1993]), and Melford's penchant for revisiting previously recorded compositions, reinforced the impression that the bulk of considerable assets -- especially her command of jazz and blues idioms, and her exceptional ability to give texture-based materials and fragmentary motives palpable lyricism and drama -- did not constitute a vaulting vision of the new, but rather a well-honed bead on tradition. (2) Critics delighted in comparing Melford's work to a plethora of pianists; in his notes to Alive, author Kevin Whitehead evoked the improbable troika of Don Pullen, Ramsey Lewis, and Vince Guaraldi. Despite the buzz, few articles assessed Melford's work on its own terms.

Even though three of the program's five compositions had been documented by the trio, Melford's fourth album, Even the Sounds Shine was a watershed. Featuring Melford's Extended Ensemble (comprised of the trio plus trumpeter Dave Douglas and saxophonist/clarinetist Marty Ehrlich) Melford explicated the pivotal concepts of her work in a far more extensive manner than was possible with her trio. By this time, the media had caught up to her as well; the album received a five-star Down Beat review by Howard Mandel, who identified the essential protean capacity of Melford's music. In her notes to Even the Sounds Shine, Melford describes compositions such as "La Mezquita Suite" as "a series (or string) of musical episodes woven together through improvisation. The question was how to convey the emotional arch or long line I conceived for the compositions... The other issues for me were mixing up the roles of accompanying and soloing; featuring smaller units within the ensemble; the continuum of density to transparency, chaos to organization, and most importantly, what is my function in this new context?" (3)

These were not entirely new ideas for Melford. The '90, '93, and '94 versions of "Frank Lloyd Wright Goes West To Rest" (included, respectively, on Jump, Alive..., and Even...) demonstrate how Melford had already expanded the varieties of improvised space available to the performers (it is noteworthy that Melford's childhood home was designed by Wright, the American architect who converted a radical sense of spatial design into commodious homes; the sense of space embodied by Wright is as emblematic of the 20th century American sensibility as the blues). In such earlier works, Melford usually spliced one area to the next, or segued with an unaccompanied solo or a rubato group improvisation. The tactics were not innovative in and of themselves; yet, given the idiomatic specificity of materials Melford seamlessly linked, the works signaled vital new applications for such transitional devices.

Inspired by Moorish architecture and Flamenco music and culture, "La Mezquita Suite (in memory of Lona Foote)" best represented the promise of Melford's ideas, in terms of both structure and process. Each of the four sections of this sprawling twenty five-minute piece possessed the requisite elasticity to satisfy the process-oriented items in Melford's substantial agenda. Subsequently, Melford and her cohorts have several distinct settings in which to improvise. Structurally, the Iberian bearing (via North Africa and the eastern Mediterranean) of "Duet" and "La Mezquita", the first and third sections of the suite, contrasted vividly against the second and last sections, the lithe yet foreboding "Waltz" and the balladic "If Not Love," which lent the elegiac suite the necessary emotional foci. In "La Mezquita Suite," the structural integrity of the work is reinforced by the expanded role of improvisation. (4)

Melford's fifth album, The Same River, Twice (Gramavision; 1996), which is also the name Melford gave to her new quintet, fulfilled the promise of "La Mezquita Suite," conferring a new gravity onto Melford's entire discography. Significantly, it does so without Melford substantively departing from her established, highly functional blueprint for album making. As a rule, Melford's albums begin with effervescent, if not downright fingerpoppin' compositions that reflect her deep affinity for the blues, which was nurtured as a surprisingly early age by Melford's first piano teacher, blues and boogie-woogie specialist Erwin Helfer. The Same River, Twice is no exception; built upon a finger bustin', boogie-woogie ostinato, "Bound Unbound" opens the album with an amalgam of juke joint jump and post-modern propulsion.

The retooled jazz and blues materials driving compositions like "Bound Unbound" continue to pepper her extended compositions. Yet, these large canvases also allow Melford to extensively draw upon her early immersions in the piano music of Bela Bartok and Dmitri Kabalevsky, and her experiences performing the genre-bending music of Leroy Jenkins, Lawrence D. "Butch" Morris, and Henry Threadgill, to create performer-driven, multi-faceted works juxtaposing precisely wrought themes with tenuously defined sound events. Melford's recent explorations of referential interaction in extended forms are crucial to understanding how she has kept, and keeps, her music in the making. (5)

The Same River, Twice documents Melford's increasingly sophisticated use of transitional devices in her extended works, bringing the chicken-and-egg conundrum of performer-defined compositional devices into sharp focus. It is notable that Melford overhauled her ensemble on this recording. Of her first quintet, only Douglas remained; the addition of cellist Erik Friedlander, percussionist Michael Sarin, and saxophonist/clarinetist Chris Speed, signaled Melford's desire for greater interactive flexibility. Throughout the album, Melford makes the connection between the use of challenging transitional devices and the enhancement of the role of improvisation in the development of the composition. In doing so, Melford fully tapped the strategic power of the transition, the real-time frontier between structure and process.

On "Crush," Melford uses a transitional technique in a series of trio improvisations that can be likened to dissolves in film and video editing, or cross-fades in theatrical lighting design. In each trio, either Melford and Speed (on tenor) or Douglas and Friedlander enter, overlapping the others with contrasting motivic or texture-based materials; Sarin quickly responds to the incoming material as the outgoing improvisation dissipates. Comprising roughly the middle third of the fifteen minute performance, the contours of the six trios progressively move away from the hard-hitting blues figure that shapes the first third of the piece, and towards the spare, pensive thematic material of the final section.

Through this expanded role for transitional devices, Melford has brought the use of structured improvisation to a new level in her work. She now fully integrates materials, process, and structure, which allow the performers to shape her compositions in unpredictable ways. As a result, Melford's music will remain in the making for the foreseeable future.

Isim Conference

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