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Myra Melford: Both Sides Now

For more than 30 years, the pianist has toiled in the avant-garde fields. Today, the mainstream is finally beginning to take note of her work.

Myra Melford
Myra Melford performing at the SFJazz Center, San Francisco, November 2018. (photo: Don Dixon)

On a New York evening in mid-autumn, the pianist Myra Melford, playing with her quintet, Snowy Egret, opened the first set of a two-night run at Dizzy’s Club Coca-Cola with “Small Thoughts,” a memorable track from her new album, The Other Side of Air. Released on the Firehouse 12 label in November, the record is inspired by two of Melford’s favorite visual artists, Cy Twombly and William Kentridge, and in many ways, “Small Thoughts”—a spindly tune held together with contrapuntal guitar, cornet, piano, and bass lines, culminating in a fierce drum solo—bore their sketch-based imprint. Melford, who in some ways resembles a bird, with an aquiline nose and short gray curly hair, sat at the keyboard, pounding away with percussive force and smiling mischievously.

If it seemed as if she were getting away with something, it may be because, not too long ago, Melford would probably not have expected to find herself performing at a venue affiliated with Wynton Marsalis, the renowned trumpeter who serves as artistic director of Jazz at Lincoln Center, where Dizzy’s is based. Melford moved to New York in 1984, where she lived for 20 years before settling in the Bay Area, and her downtown world—in which she absorbed the teachings of avant-gardists like John Zorn, Butch Morris, Leroy Jenkins, and Henry Threadgill—was far removed from Marsalis’ uptown jazz sanctuary, established in 1987.

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