All that jazz: Myra Melford talks about upcoming jazz series

Cal Performances/Courtesy

Related Posts

As always, Cal Performances seeks to invite the best and brightest performing musicians to the Zellerbach Hall stage to expose the Berkeley community to a wide range of talent. The upcoming jazz series, curated by renowned artist and UC Berkeley professor Myra Melford, is no exception — inviting artists from around the globe to perform in “Spider Web” and “An Evening of Jazz Duos Onstage.” 

Melford is an accomplished pianist and keyboardist who both releases her own enchanting, impressive and original compositions and teaches at UC Berkeley as a professor of composition and improvisational practices in the music department; Melford has been a campus professor for 14 years. As many professors do, she believes that educating is inherently rewarding. “I’m in a kind of situation where I feel like I learn as much from the students as I’m able to offer,” she said. Her role as a professor, in turn, has inspired both her original music and the series she has curated.

In talking about the curation of the series, it is impossible not to acknowledge Melford’s own taste in jazz that extends beyond these performances. Melford said she “thought about (her) own personal experience and areas of interest and the artists who have caught (her) ear,” making the selection of the performing artists highly personal. 

Most importantly, musical improvisation is essential to Melford, forming the very foundation on which her musical career was built; it is also why she became interested in music in the first place. Melford notes that “improvisation has a certain energy to it,” which she says cannot be found in rehearsed jazz music. She continued, stating, “Improvisation’s element of the unknown creates a certain kind of energy and excitement, and surprise and unpredictability, that I really love in music.”

This emphasis on improvisation was integral to Melford’s choice of performers for the series, noting that she sought to take musicians from a community she is a part of — musicians that “are finding really personal and innovative ways to mix their love and their experience as masterful jazz musicians and improvisers with music they encounter on their travels or new developments in technology, new hybrid forms with other styles of music.” Melford’s emphasis on improvisation is nothing new, as she said she’s always been inclined to improvise, even as a young child.

“As soon as I was able, I’d sit at the piano and make up songs and imitate them or whatever. … in those early years, before I started taking lessons, I loved to improvise,” Melford said. In the curation of her jazz series, her taste is no different, prompting her to choose the best improvisers she could find for the series, looking for those innovating in the jazz world. 

Additionally, with the choice of performers, Melford sought to provide the West Coast community with an opportunity to experience wondrous musical talent it likely wouldn’t have otherwise been exposed to. Melford “really wanted the Bay Area community to get to know (these artists) and hear their music, but also for them to get to play for audiences here.” Melford also desired to showcase “musicians who have been part of a lineage of innovators in jazz,” highlighting those “questioning the conventions and finding really imaginative and creative new ways of creating structures for improvised music and taking the kinds of rhythms, and harmonies, and melodic approaches into new areas of expression.” As a pianist herself, Melford has followed up-and-coming pianists especially closely, which is reflected in her choice to bring in two young pianists and a saxophonist for one of the concerts.

Furthermore, Melford sees her curation of the series as an opportunity to showcase female musicians. “I really feel like it’s important to champion young women musicians. Regardless of how far we’ve come in some ways, as women, jazz artists and improvisers, there’s still a long way to go,” Melford said. This makes perfect sense considering Melford’s views on art and society. She remarked that the arts “are a barometer for and often a leading edge or catalyst for what’s going on in the world in general — socially and politically — how people live, what their concerns are.” Featuring female musicians seems only natural in a time when women are feeling increasingly inspired to fight for systemic change, especially in male-dominated professions. 

Melford’s curated jazz series certainly has the potential to innovate jazz as a genre. With this curation, it is easy to see how personal the series is to Melford, as it incorporates many of the same values found in her original pieces and discography. Melford said she “like(s) to hear something familiar sounding sound completely new and fresh,” and it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the series accomplish exactly this.

Contact Caitlin Keller at [email protected].