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Several Directions at Once: Listening With Myra Melford, Before a Residency at The Stone

Frank Stewart
Myra Melford Performing at Handful of Keys Concert at Rose Theater with The Jazz at Lincoln Center Orchestra

Pianist-composer Myra Melford isn’t one for dogmas.

Whether she’s checking out the boogie-woogie of James P. Johnson, the fractured concepts of Cecil Taylor or Gnawa trance ceremonies in Morocco, openness guides the way she navigates life and music.

Melford’s prolific output should now qualify her as a living jazz legend. (Take note, everyone on the NEA Jazz Master advisory committee.) At 62, she believes she's just now peaking as an artist. Her most recent album, The Other Side of Air, was named one of the 50 Best Albums of 2018 by NPR Music. (Our own Nate Chinen put it near the top of his year-end best, at No. 2.)

Credit Long Bryan Murray
Myra Melford

While Melford takes the long view with her evolution, she formed her musical voice decades ago, largely at the Knitting Factory in Lower Manhattan. She’s always been highly organized, leading simultaneous projects, and yet she thrives in kind of musical chaos. Her artistic choices lean towards the avant-garde, but she never seems beholden to them. She finds inspiration everywhere — most recently in her illuminating dreamlife, and the stop-motion animation of South African artist William Kentridge.

“It was hearing Leroy Jenkins, The Art Ensemble of Chicago, and Cecil Taylor that first captured my attention,” Melford says. “When I got to New York, I realized there is this other big world: the downtown scene, John Zorn, Fred Frith, Butch Morris, and Henry Threadgill. There’s the whole history of the music and a lot of early blues players, Thelonious Monk and Herbie Nichols. I just started working in several directions at once, in terms of exploring, and realized I had to synthesize it all to express myself."

Melford will lead five ensembles in a residency at The Stone at the New School, beginning June 11. Among them are two new quartets: one with clarinetist Ben Goldberg, bassist Michael Formenek, and drummer Hamir Atwal; and another with guitarist Mary Halvorson, saxophonist Ingrid Laubrock and cellist Tomeka Reid.

She’ll also regroup Trio M, with drummer Matt Wilson and bassist Mark Dresser, and an older quartet with Cuong Vu on trumpet, Stomu Takeishi on acoustic bass guitar and Rudy Royston on drums. The run culminates with Snowy Egret, featuring Stomu Takeishi on bass, Ron Miles on cornet, Liberty Ellman on guitar, and Tyshawn Sorey on drums.

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For more than 15 years, Simon Rentner has worked as a host, producer, broadcaster, web journalist, and music presenter in New York City. His career gives him the opportunity to cover a wide spectrum of topics including, history, culture, and, most importantly, his true passion of music from faraway places such as Europe, South America, and Africa.