"From her first album in 1991, it was clear that this pianist and composer would stay around," the New York Times said of Myra Melford. Melford has not only stuck around but she has flourished. She has appeared on more than 30 recordings, including ten as a leader, performed in more than 30 countries, won major awards for composition and piano performance, received a Fulbright Scholarship to study harmonium in India, and worked with some of the world's most innovative musicians. Melford's staying power is the product of ceaseless musical travels; she's always going somewhere. As Francis Davis noted, "Myra Melford is the genuine article, the most gifted pianist/composer to emerge from jazz since Anthony Davis."
At the keyboard, Melford recasts the blues and boogie-woogie of her Chicago hometown, folds in elements of the music of Eastern Europe and India, and blends them with the rangy, percussive avant-garde stylings she cultivated in studies with Don Pullen and Henry Threadgill. This personal musical vocabulary is further enriched by a lush lyricism and organized by an architectural sense of composition that she derived from classical training.
Melford's remarkable breadth is ordered by a thoughtful, expressive sensibility, evocatively described by Coda Magazine: "Myra Melford is at once a dancer, a romantic and a savage suckerpuncher at the bench . . . beating all hell out of the piano and making it beautiful."
In the early '90s Melford toured and recorded extensively with her acclaimed trio featuring Lindsey Horner on bass and Reggie Nicholson on drums. Their third album, the 1993 recording Alive in the House of Saints, reissued with previously unreleased tracks by hat Art in 2001, is again receiving rave reviews. The Penguin Guide to Jazz praises the trio for its "absorbing blend of methods. . . . Melford relishes her tunes, and Horner and Nicholson swing them off the bandstand."
In the late '90s, her projects included the stellar The Same River, Twice an acoustic improvising chamber ensemble with Dave Douglas or Cuong Vu on trumpet, Chris Speed on reeds, cellist Erik Friedlander and drummer Michael Sarin. The band "bursts with invention and a joy in musicmaking that's palpable," said Billboard magazine. "One can hear in the pianist's colorful compositions jazz influences such as Ornette Coleman, Henry Threadgill, and Don Pullen, but her themes are also informed by 'non-jazz' sources such as klezmer, tango, and chamber music," wrote Jon Andrews in Down Beat. Crush an electro-acoustic trio/quartet, that featured electric bassist Stomu Takeishi, drummer Kenny Wolleson, and trumpeter Vu, released the critically acclaimed Dance Beyond the Color in 2000. "Spare and baroque, mournful and exhilarated, Melford and her trio keep up an emotional intensity that wrings you out with its beauty," wrote Mark Fefer in Seattle Weekly.
Melford's strong inner drive for innovation and her ongoing search for new sounds and new directions in her music led her to the harmonium, a small hand-pump organ traditionally used in Indian and Pakistani classical and devotional music. Melford was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study North Indian music on the instrument with Sohanlal Sharma in Calcutta, where she was in residency from September 2000 through May 2001.
After her return from India, she turned her attention in the fall of 2001 to The Tent, a quintet of players drawn from Crush and The Same River, Twice. The band toured both as a quintet in Europe and as a drummerless trio of piano/harmonium, bass, trumpet and electronics, in the U.S. and Canada. The quintet released its first CD, Where the Two Worlds Touch, for Arabesque in April 2004. "The album is...remarkably orchestral in scope, with shifting rhythms, textures and musical shapes. As cerebral as it sometimes gets, it is an album to be experienced on the most visceral of levels," wrote John Kelman in All About Jazz.
Her newest project, Be Bread is a quartet featuring Brandon Ross on electric guitar and banjo or Cuong Vu on trumpet and electronics, Stomu Takeishi on electric and acoustic bass guitar and Elliot Humberto Kavee on drums. The band is the first to draw extensively on her experiences in India, although she has written individual pieces for The Tent and the collective Equal Interest trio. "I was waiting to see what would emerge naturally from my experience as opposed to trying to make something happen," Melford says. "One of the things I notice about this music is the layers of simultaneous activity, not unlike life in modern-day India: a continual bombardment of the senses and a mingling of the peace of the ancient with the hustle of the present. . . . I first played this music on the melodica and as a result, much of it is based on melody. It's conceived as quartet music, but what's important here is not the instrumentation but rather individual musical personality."
In addition to leading her own ensembles for more than 15 years, Melford is a member of two collective ensembles, a duo with reedist Marty Ehrlich that released Yet Can Spring on Arabesque in 2001, and Equal Interest a trio with Leroy Jenkins and Joseph Jarman that released its self-titled debut on OmniTone in 1999. In 1995 she was featured on Marian McPartland's "Piano Jazz" broadcast on National Public Radio. As a guest artist, Melford appears on violinist Jenny Scheinman's CD Shaligaster (Tzadik), Joseph Jarman's Lifetime Visions and Jarman's and Leroy Jenkins' Out of the Mist (Ocean Records); Butch Morris' Testament (New World Records); Henry Threadgill's Makin' a Move (Sony) and Songs Out of My Trees (Soul Note); and Leroy Jenkins' Themes and Improvisations on the Blues (CRI).
Melford is also active in music education. She is currently Assistant Professor of Improvisational Performance and Compositional Practices in the Music Department at the University of California at Berkeley. She's developing a program of study that allows students to explore the role of improvisation in contemporary jazz and creative music through performance and composition. Her courses emphasize developing the tools of an improviser as well as an aesthetic and critical knowledge of current practices. She earned a B.A. from Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash. She completed her studies with Art Lande and Gary Peacock at the Cornish Institute in Seattle, and in private study with Henry Threadgill and Don Pullen in New York City.
As Melford continues to turn musical corners with new instruments, inventive compositions, and further ensembles, you get the feeling that her artistry could still go anywhere. As Jazziz magazine noted, "The confidence to go so far into uncharted territory and the ability to carry listeners along-then bring them back-attest to Melford's vision."