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Artist’s Choice: Women in the Avant-Garde

Nicole Mitchell chooses five uncompromising and innovative female jazz artists

Matana Roberts
Nicole Mitchell
Myra Melford

Being a female instrumentalist in jazz is avant-garde in its own right. That said, women like the groundbreaking pianist Geri Allen, ultra-unique guitarist Mary Halvorson and MacArthur “genius” violinist Regina Carter are top-notch players by any standard, whose work deserves our continuing recognition. The following women are also uncompromising and innovative at their craft. The fearless sounds of these women tell a story no one else can tell: a crucial dimension of the avant-garde. Let’s hear them.

Myra Melford

“Tele Mojo”
Trio M The Guest House (Enja, 2012)

If you haven’t already discovered the amazing inventiveness and sheer virtuosity of pianist and composer Myra Melford, maybe the fact that she was this year’s Alpert Award winner in music will point you toward her incredible sounds. “Tele Mojo” is an enchanting taste of her crisp yet heart-filled playing. Bassist Mark Dresser and drummer Matt Wilson of her Trio M eloquently set up a magic carpet of 11, while Melford draws a richly diverse palette of colors from her piano, evoking Eastern modes, pentatonic African thumb-piano and lyrically satisfying possibilities. Then, out of nowhere, Dresser starts in with micro-studded staccatos, teasing the whole ensemble into a gray storm of flying matter, whirling in harmonic density. The piece slowly swirls down into Melford’s reflections, as Wilson offers an intensity underlying quiet questions.

Matana Roberts

“Song for Eulalie”

Coin Coin, Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres
(Constellation, 2011)

Saxophonist and composer Matana Roberts has the chops to top any chart in the straight-ahead jazz category, but she courageously stays true to her creative originality. With a large ensemble assisting her in realizing her ambitious multi-arts Coin Coin, Chapter One: Gens de couleur libres, Roberts weaves stories from her ancestry, linking African-American history into a tapestry of sound, journeying from Africa through slavery and into the 21st century.

“Song for Eulalie” exposes her compositional ingenuity, as the piece twists into many surprising places. “Eulalie” starts with opposing melodies-one catchy and richly rhythmic, the other a singable blues. As these two lines orbit, suddenly things open into a blur of freedom sounds, where electric guitar duets with violin in pastel lines of color and silence. Then the group marches Braxton-style in double-tongued unison, to enter a cave of sustained tones of mystery. The band explodes into raucousness, and finally Roberts’ beautiful alto sings in fullness, joyfully searching.

Lauren Newton & Joëlle Léandre

“Transoxide Olive”
18 Colors (Leo, 1996)

Simply put, Joëlle Léandre is a living legend. The contemporary bassist of choice for Boulez and Cage, Evan Parker, Steve Lacy, George Lewis and Anthony Braxton, she’s a history-maker with a truly original voice. On the album 18 Colors, Léandre teams up with amazing vocalist Lauren Newton to create timeless improvisations of timbral richness and emotional depth. The track “Transoxide Olive” blends the ethereal with the physical. Gentle and full of overtones, Newton conjures other-dimensional melodies while Léandre’s bass hauntingly sings. Univer-soul sounds here. This is a great entry for audiences new to free improvisation.

Dee Alexander

Wild Is the Wind (BluJazz, 2009)

Vocalist Dee Alexander is a Chicago treasure just recently discovered by the international community in the last few years. This article speaks for instrumentalists, but Alexander’s vocal virtuosity demands inclusion. Her critically acclaimed debut album, Wild

Is the Wind
, turned a lot of heads. One of the record’s best tracks is “Butterfly,” dedicated to saxophonist Light Henry Huff, where she sparkles with power and precision. Alexander, who performed with the AACM for many years, is a master improviser. Her solo on “Butterfly” tickles with lovely vocal tremolos. There’s more where that came from, as Alexander is an Ella Fitzgerald of free jazz.

Mazz Swift/Tomeka Reid/Silvia Bolognesi


Hear in Now (Rudi, 2012)

Grammy-winning bassist Esperanza Spalding opened our ears to jazz women who can play strings, and Hear in Now showcases three more great new talents: violinist Mazz Swift, cellist Tomeka Reid and Italian bassist Silvia Bolognesi. “Cakewalk” displays their diversity in full swing, from classical codas to freewheeling improvisation to a slow-walking country blues to coloristic explorations. Reid sings and whispers at the top of her tenor register on cello with eerie aptitude, while Swift eases barbeque out of her bent blues. Bolognesi threads the music with rhythmic and harmonic effortlessness.

Nicole Mitchell is an award-winning flutist, composer and bandleader based in Southern California. Her latest release is Arc of O (RogueArt) featuring the An Arche New Music Ensemble.

Originally Published