This 1996 essay was originally published in the catalog for Let's Cool One: Chamber Jazz, a festival produced by Wiener Musik Gallerie.
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's1990 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.
||FOOTNOTES TO MYRA MELFORD: IN THE MAKING
1: In a 23 September 1996, interview with the author, Melford elaborated on her various activities during her first years in New York:
"In a way, I was doing all the things musicians traditionally did one after another at the same time. When I arrived, I started attending Leroy Jenkins' improvisation workshop, where he was developing much of his Mixed Quintet music. Instead of chord changes, there were specific motivic materials sometimes used as backgrounds for soloists. I met Marion Brandis, a flutist, there. Marion and I began working as a duo, exploring extended technique, texture, and sound for sound's sake, building structured improvisations from spontaneous exchanges. At the same time, I took private lessons from Jaki Byard, thinking that I still wanted to play traditional jazz and bebop, but I've never been able to stick with real straight ahead playing. I always get sidetracked on something else. Then the downtown scene started happening at places like the Knitting Factory, and I was certainly influenced by (John) Zorn, Elliot Sharp, Ned Rothenberg, Butch Morris. I started participating in some of Butch's Conductions, which then took place in these giant happenings with dozens of other artists and actors.
" I also began studying composition with Henry Threadgill, which really influenced the way I looked at composition. Marion and I mostly worked with texture. Through studying Henry I got more into melody and harmony and rhythm and realized that a lot of the music I was writing was very lyrical and harmonic and rhythmically based. I realized I did want to play in more of a 'jazz' based language, though I knew I didn't want to play straight ahead jazz.
"I started playing solo around this time because Marion was expecting. I began to grapple with how to improvise upon the pieces I was writing, which were in a very different type of language. I started doing solo pieces at my concerts at the Knitting Factory, and one of the pieces was included on one of their anthologies. When that record came out, Michael Dorf asked me if I wanted to be part of a Knitting Factory tour in Europe. I had already been thinking about forming a trio, so the timing was right.
"So, I was touring with my own group, but studying and workshopping and working as a sideman at the same time."
The anthology Melford referred to is Live at the Knitting Factory, Volume Two (A&M; 1989: currently issued on Knitting Factory Works). Melford later performed on Jenkins' Themes and Improvisations on the Blues (CRI eXchange; 1994)
Melford elaborated on the role of her trio in her development in the 23 September, 1996 interview:
"The trio was a great learning experience for me, because I only had a little experience playing with straight ahead jazz with a rhythm section. Lindsey, Reggie, and I clicked really well. At first, I was changing music I had written for solo piano to fit the trio, but then I started writing with the trio in mind, to strengthen the fabric of the ensemble rather than to extend what I did as a soloist."
Does the jazz piano trio carry with it such a strong history of conventions that it's inherently difficult to really stretch it beyond a certain point?
"It's a question I ask myself. There's Matthew Shipp playing more in the vein of Cecil Taylor's ensemble playing, but I wonder how much freedom there can be within a trio, and how much you automatically fall into these structures that have worked historically. "
Is it a case of the format making compositional demands?
"That would make sense given my development during the late '80s and early '90s. I was grappling with how to put together this love of playing the piano texturally and very physically, and the trio pieces that called for traditional melodic and harmonic and rhythmic playing. That took a pretty long time to work through. These are things that I'm still grappling with in new ways."
Melford referred to the events that catalyzed these issues in the same interview:
"I had played with Han Bennink in late '93 and early '94, which was really quite a stretch for me. In both situations, I couldn't do most of what I had worked out with the trio. I couldn't rely on a set of tunes I was familiar with, or certain ways of doing things in specific circumstances. All of that was suddenly pulled out from under me. I discovered that I really enjoyed not knowing what was going to happen next, of starting a tune, going far afield from it, and not knowing whether or not we would get back to it, either in an oblique or a very direct way. There was an incredible amount of freedom and listening empathy for a greater variety of what might happen in a set. While there was a lot of telepathy going on within the trio, it was based on what we had carefully worked out. Dave (Douglas) was another person like Han where anything could happen and he would be right there with me. He could hear when I was making really oblique references to my own material, and that was really exciting. It was that type of playing that was the basis of my work with the Extended Ensemble."
In discussing her approach to improvisation in the same interview, Melford referred to her work with composers Butch Morris and Henry Threadgill. She performs on Morris' Testament: A Conduction Collection (New World Counter Currents; 1995) and Threadgill's Song Out of My Trees (Black Saint; 1994) and Makin' a Move (Columbia; 1995).
"I prefer improvisation with parameters over free improvisation, but I try to find innovative ways to change what you do in an improvisation. Since the writing in these works is less song form oriented, less tied to tunes and chord changes, the improvising isn't either. Sometimes I'll go into a performance without knowing who is going to solo, or how people will join in at the second "A" or "B." Often, there's motivic material that's thrown around within the group, and you don't know how that will come out. The improvising is what the writing is supposed to open up, so if you set down what the improvisations will be, you're defeating the purpose.
"It was Butch that really influenced my ideas about interacting within a piece and how to play off references to the materials. When I first started playing with him I found that I could play in a way that was really comfortable to me, yet stretched me in different ways than my own writing did. Then I found I could do the same thing with Henry. Their music allows that. I allow that, too, and it doesn't make the music any less mine.
"Henry arranges improvised sections in his compositions. We'll have landing points in the written material that we're heading to, but in no way are we following a set rhythmic and bar timed structure. What I love about Henry's music is the ability to make references to material however and whenever I feel it's appropriate. Henry is the most important influence that I'm conscious of. What I learned from Henry is still my main approach to composition: use the form that grows out of the material, instead of choosing a form and trying to write within it."
In the same interview, Melford approached this idea by referring to the overlap between her objectives as composer and improviser:
"As much as I try to bring a whole intellectual process to writing, it's really quite intuitive. As an improviser, I have an intuitive tendency to go off in a different direction when the composition has connotations of bossa nova, early Horace Silver, or salsa. I try to use that tendency compositionally. In my compositions, I intend these references to go other places. They're fluid references. It's logical that they shouldn't come out the same way every performance."
Your use of these materials in your compositions, then, has more to do with evolving new modes of interaction than continuing, say, a (Charlie) Parker -to-Coltrane-to-AACM dialectic.
"Yes. You have to be open enough to explore the juxtaposition or interaction of styles or vocabularies in the moment. Unless you have that sensibility, you can't make anything new of the common language pool."