Myra Melford on the Magic of Duos, the Art of Improvisation, and Performing With Rappers For the First Time

Expect the unexpected at the Rickshaw Stop tomorrow night. Presented by Red Bull Music Academy Radio San Francisco — currently celebrating its 10th anniversary with a full two weeks of live performances, guest DJs, and more, broadcasting out of a studio in the Mission — “A Night Of Improvised Round Robin Duets” will see14-plus musicians engaging in free improvisation, with one caveat: only two musicians at a time, with one switching out every five minutes, for a continuous performance involving every musician.

[jump] Got that? Tag in, play for a total of ten minutes with two different partners, then tag out. Even more unusual, the event features a wide variety of musicians, all expert improvisors, from jazz great Joshua Redman to Beats Antique's David Satori, to MCs Gift of Gab from Blackalicious and Lyrics Born. Consider all boundaries sufficiently pushed.

I spoke with one participant, pianist and composer Myra Melford, about the round-robin format and improvisation in general. Melford, a Guggenheim fellow and professor at UC Berkeley, is an accomplished improvisor, having studied and performed with such luminaries as Henry Threadgill, Jaki Byard, Butch Morris, and Leroy Jenkins. She has led many of her own groups, including Be Bread (named after a Rumi poem) and Snowy Egret. She is also part of the collective Trio M. Melford is a driving and inspired pianist and graciously answered even my most esoteric questions. 

SF Weekly: How would you define improvisation?
Myra Melford: In music we think of improvisation as instant composition. In other words, instead of playing a pre-composed piece you're composing the piece on the spot.

And why would you choose to do this rather than compose the music ahead of time?
For me, personally, what I love about improvising is that unknown factor, you're jumping into this mysterious place where you don't know what's going to happen. But if you listen and you trust the people you're playing with and you trust your years if experience on your instrument, something you could never plan could happen, and that's what makes it exciting and so much fun .

Since this event is a series of duo performances: Is there anything you get out of playing with one other person that you can't get on your own or with a larger group?
Yes. Duos are special because they get down to the essence of improvising which is a conversation . When you're playing solo you don't have anyone to play off of, or to give you input, or to spark your imagination, it all relies on you. And when you're in a larger group, you're only one third or fourth or fifth of the conversation. So in a duo dialog you get to invest yourself fully in it, yet you have the joy of bouncing off of another person's ideas and creativity.

Do you have any favorite duo partners, when it comes to instrumentation (drummers, other pianists, etc.)?
I love to play duo in all kinds of settings. Right now I have a duo with local clarinetist and composer Ben Goldberg, which I love. I had a duo with Marty Ehrlich, a great woodwind player and composer from New York, for several years. I've played duo with several pianists, including Satoko Fujii from Japan and Alister Spence from Australia. I had a great time playing duo with Han Bennink, the wonderful dutch drummer. And then other people I've just had chance meetings with, which has been enormously fun.
There are a couple of MCs on the bill. Have you ever played with rappers?
I haven't. I've worked with people who do electronics and more popular types of music, but I've never worked with a rapper, or a DJ.

The round-robin format has you engaging with two different people for only a short time – do you have a standard way you like to open a musical conversation with someone?
Well, for my approach in general the first thing is listening: what's already happening, what does the room feel like, what does the audience feel like, what am I feeling like right now? It's kind of a tuning-in process. Part of the art of improvising with other people, which I feel like I'm continually trying to practice, is how do you offfer something that creates an opening for the other person? If one person dominates the conversation too much it can be hard for someone else to get a word in edgewise. So you want to put something strong out there but you also want to leave space for the other person. That can happen in different ways but that's the underlying strategy.

You use similar duo round-robin exercises in your classes. What does this format offer as a teaching or learning tool?
Even though it's very challenging, it's a great elemental step in learning to improvise because you simplify to just two people. You can analyze the kinds of ways we communicate in a duet setting and try those in short pieces. It's on-the-spot training about how to use your vocabulary and examine your choices and keep the energy going.

Would you consider this format a simplified version of a game piece, like John Zorn's COBRA?
I think that is a very apt description of it; it is a game. And the rules are very simple: You can play whatever you want, but you're playing in a pre-determined order, and you get to play with one person for five minutes, and then another, back to back. Other than that it's totally up to you, it can go anywhere. And sometimes just a simple structure like that is all you need to organize a large group of people and not limit them in any way.

Since you mentioned Han Bennink, who is a very funny performer, for lack of a better description — do you think about humor at all in improvisation or your own performances?
I think that improvisation can include all the different things we feel and experience as humans. But I have to say, that was a huge lesson for me when I worked with Han for the first time. It was 1994 and I was pretty much a neophyte, and pretty serious. I had fun playing music; it was a joyous experience for me, but I was pretty serious and determined. I was going to try to make it as a musician and all that.

Han completely blew all of that out of the water. We did a three-and-a-half-week tour in Europe, and every night he would do something really funny. Sometimes it was at my expense, in a way, but it really got me to loosen up and realize humor is a great thing that can be communicated through music, and that's a wonderful thing to offer an audience.

with Joshua Redman, Myra Melford, Lyrics Born, Tommy Capell, Adam Theis, Gift of Gab, Jenny Scheinman, and more
8 p.m. Wednesday, March 4 at the Rickshaw Stop. $15;

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