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The Equal Interests of Myra Melford

Myra Melford Myra Melford
The "Supergroup" is a marketing cliché in the pop music world that was invented to sell product. From Asia to the Three Tenors, there's been a long lineage of critical cringers designed to cash in on the name branding of its parts. In jazz and creative music, however, collaboration is the spirited norm and groups of improvisational superstars often find each other in democratic union; though the quality of the musicianship is often astounding, any preconceptions of a big pay off are laughable.

What to call a group then that includes three of improvised music's most reckless and inspired explorers? Call them Equal Interest and you get the guiding light spirit of the new Myra Melford, Joseph Jarman and Leroy Jenkins collective.

Jarman and Jenkins were both founding members of the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM), the Chicago-based music collective that developed from a Muhal Richard Abrams big band in the 1960's and went on to become one of the creative catalysts for jazz's ever developing new voice. As saxophonist and composer with the Art Ensemble of Chicago, Jarman helped create one of jazz's most original ensembles, a group responsible for pushing the music into the theatrical realm of performance art. Jarman's compositions have always been as much about listening to the silence between the notes as to the notes themselves, a theory that fits well with his work as a Buddhist priest.

In his own Revolutionary Ensemble, Leroy Jenkins established the violin as a weapon to be reckoned with in the new music arsenal. The sounds he coaxes from his fiddle and bow are alternately humorous and disquieting but always rooted in the mystery of the blues and his compositions range from ragged jazz transcendence to hip-hop opera.

Pianist Myra Melford's music is at times rhapsodic, at others rhythmically monstrous with a frenzied drive. In her playing you hear the history of jazz piano - from James P. Johnson to Art Tatum to Cecil Taylor and Muhal Richard Abrams. Her Same River Twice Quintet brings together the cream of jazz's new music pioneers.

In January, the trio released its second self-titled disc of evolutionary world improvised music on the tiny Omnitone label. I talked with pianist Melford about this New Music nexus she's formed with Jarman and Jenkins.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Tell me about your origins.

MYRA MELFORD: I was at Evergreen College in Olympia, Washington from '76 to '81. That's where I first met Leroy (Jenkins) which was very exciting for me. He played a concert there and after hearing him I said that's what I want to do with my life - play new jazz as impassioned as that. I first saw the Art Ensemble of Chicago in Seattle too though I didn't meet Joseph until I moved to New York. It's very special to be playing with two of my mentors who inspired me.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: How did the three of you end up collaborating?

MYRA MELFORD: Joseph and Leroy were being presented as composers at an AACM concert in New York. I guess it was the Fall of '96. Both were commissioned to write a chamber piece and both kind of agreed to put a degree of improvisation in each piece. I was brought in as a featured improviser along with Lindsay Horner (bass) and Jeffrey Schanzer (guitarist) and then Joseph and Leroy. The first half of the show was designed as a free improvisation for the five of us where each improviser would have an equal interest in creating the piece. Muhal said the piece should be called "Equal Interest" as a result. Cynthia Herbst who owns Ocean Records was in the audience and loved it and asked Leroy, Joseph, and I to record together. So we did a disc called Out of the Mist and when we had to name the group, Equal Interest made sense. Then the Knitting Factory asked me to be part of their annual jazz week and I contracted to bring the group and at the same time Leroy was offered a date in Boston and he contracted us there. Neither

JAZZREVIEW.COM: Do you call yourself a jazz ensemble?

MYRA MELFORD: Yeah, I guess I'd say "jazz / New Music" cause I don't want to mislead people into thinking we're playing standards. But, speaking for myself, jazz is the category that I'd say I fit most comfortably in, not only rhythmically, but because the music calls for a lot of improvisation. It's not your typical jazz - head, solo, solo, out - but it's written music developed through improvisation. I also use blues, folk forms and other traditional jazz structures in my composing. Harmonically though I'm influenced by the new music of 20th century classical composers.

But what it comes down to is that we're each really expressing ourselves through our music. We each compose pieces with the others in mind. We're very individual - there's a lot of meditation and reflective passages, a lot of reacting and interaction. The avant garde style that Joseph and Leroy were associated with in the sixties is only a small part of what we do.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: I know Joseph is a Buddhist priest and you've studied with him. Does the group's meditative sense come from that?

MYRA MELFORD: I guess so. Joseph is a Shinshu priest and, for Joseph, his Buddhism informs everything he does. He really is making a conscious effort to express his role as a Buddhist priest through his music. For me I think it informs how I hear and play music. How I hear even. Especially in improvising which is about playing very much in the moment, the general principle of all Eastern thought.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: How do you approach the group differently from your other projects?

MYRA MELFORD: Well, first I play in a different mode as I play with different personalities. But also, this is the first group I've played in where there isn't a traditional rhythm section - no drums or bass or cello. To an extent part of my role is to support the rhythm and without that traditional rhythm section more of it falls on me.

JAZZREVIEW.COM: What should drive people to check you out?

MYRA MELFORD: That's always a tough question for me not because of false modesty but because each person has their own reason to listen. I guess what has always inspired me the most when I listen to other's music is hearing a genuine "human" voice coming through the music. But I know that's not what everyone listens for and I'm not saying that a great musician playing standards doesn't have an individual voice. Of course, the best ones do. But what's unique with us is that you won't hear anyone else play this way or play this music. We don't really sound like each other even. But together, I hope you'll hear that we're really communicating with each other and with heart. What we're playing is very personal.

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Myra Melford
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