Myra Melford Wins Fulbright To Study Harmonium In India

Pianist will work with several teachers for nine months.

Pianist Myra Melford, one of the most heralded players to emerge from the cutting-edge New York jazz scene in the '80s, has won a Fulbright award to study the harmonium in India.

The scholarship will cover all expenses during her nine-month stay, which begins in September.

"It's a chance to be absorbed in Indian culture and Indian music," Melford, 42, said.

The harmonium, which sounds like a combination of an accordion and an organ, is traditionally associated with Indian-Pakistani devotional music.

"I am going to study with Sohanlal Sharma, who I met through Samir Chatterjee, who played the harmonium in trumpeter Dave Douglas' group," Melford said. "Sharma specializes in playing the harmonium as a solo instrument. This is rare, because most of the time the harmonium is used to accompany vocals, which he does as well, in addition to playing ragas. I really wanted to study with him, and I'm also hoping to study Qawwali (Pakistani-Islamic devotional music) with some Sufi musicians who play in a different style. I just want to go over there and study north Indian classical and devotional music, because that's the context within which I will be learning the technique."

The Fulbright will offer Melford a break from an extremely busy music-making schedule. She currently leads two groups and co-leads a third. Her bands Crush and Same River, Twice each have recent CDs; Equal Interest, a trio in which she plays with violinist Leroy Jenkins and reed player Joseph Jarman, released their first, self-titled record for OmniTone in January.

Dance Beyond the Color on Arabesque is Melford's album with Crush, a group that also includes bassist Stomu Takeishi, drummer Kenny Wollesen, and trumpeter Cuong Vu. The LP contains the tune "Yellow Are Crowds of Flowers" (RealAudio excerpt). A quintet made up of Melford, Douglas, saxophonist Chris Speed, cellist Erik Friedlander and drummer Michael Sarin, The Same River, Twice recently released Above Blue, also on Arabesque.

Organic Composition

As a player, Melford tends toward short bursts of notes, chopping out clusters with the edge of her left hand while she picks out a melody line with her right. But beyond that trademark technique, nothing is a given. She has an open, spacious concept of composition that goes back to her childhood in Glencoe, Ill., where she lived in a house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

"Wright's idea was that of organic architecture," Melford said. "He would start with a simple motif from nature and figure out how to expand it or develop it into a whole building that somehow reflected that original motif. He wanted his buildings to look as they had grown out of the site or the environment, as opposed to this box that was being imposed on it. He also wanted to break the idea of the box, so he had all kinds of extensions from it."

If Wright was Melford's first philosophical mentor, she further developed his approach in her music while studying with saxophonist Henry Threadgill — one of the great composers of the past 25 years — after she arrived in New York in 1984.

"I was really into finding out how to break open forms in music, and to have as much flow and space as possible," she said. "I wanted badly to get away from the head-solo-head thing, which is so overused in jazz. Henry was the perfect person to study with. He calls his process organic composition. He showed me practical ways to open things up. His idea would be to take a simple cell, or musical idea, turn it upside-down, make all sorts of permutations on it and then have the form of the piece grow out of these ideas in a natural way. My lessons with Henry continue to be the basis for my way of composing and improvising."

Melford later recorded on two of Threadgill's projects: Song Out of My Trees, from 1993 on Black Saint, and Makin' a Move, a 1995 date for Columbia.

Melford attended Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., where she was exposed to musicians who played in that town's creative music scene.

"I was just starting to really study jazz piano when I heard Leroy Jenkins and saxophonist Oliver Lake play in town. I thought, 'Gee, jazz is great, but I wanna do what they're doing!' I went to hear Leroy play at a club near my school. He was with singer-pianist Amina Claudine Myers and drummer Pheeroan AkLaff, and that was it. I went right from being turned on to Charlie Parker, McCoy Tyner and John Coltrane to thinking, 'This is what I want to do — be a composer and improviser, and really do my own thing, rather than interpret other people's music.' And I've never looked back."

Since her first album, 1991's Jump on Enemy Records, Melford has recorded nine albums.

Strong Presence

"Myra is one of the stronger musicians in this new music," Jenkins said. "She plays unusually well for someone her age. She plays with great strength, continuity and beauty. These days, when so many people are recycling bebop, here comes a musician who has her own voice. She employs all these generations of music that has gone down."

Melford just wrapped up a series of duets with reed player Marty Ehrlich. The untitled record will contain pianist Robin Holcomb's "The Natural World," some Chicago blues and original compositions. Ehrlich, who appeared on Melford's 1995 Even the Sounds Shine (Hat Art), spoke of the forthcoming record, which Arabesque is scheduled to release in January.

"We had been talking about getting together as a duo," Ehrlich said. "She always brings a certain musical flow and a rhythmic incisiveness that draw me to love playing with her."

Melford summed up her thoughts on music and other pursuits in a section of the recent book Arcana: Musicians on Music, edited by composer-saxophonist John Zorn:

"Unity is the goal. I look forward to continuing my exploration of the relationship between internal, external, and aural space — meditation and architecture; the healing and transformative power of music and sound."