Around the world in jazz

Find the best in the Earshot Festival with Myra Melford.


Earshot Jazz Festival On The Boards, 100 W. Roy 547-9787, $16 8 p.m. Sun., Oct. 28

IN 52 KEYS and one diminutive frame, pianist Myra Melford embodies the best qualities of the Earshot Jazz Festival. She's got Seattle roots; she studied at Cornish College 20 years ago. And her expansive playing seems to touch on all the varied facets of jazz that Earshot so liberally embraces: from the progressive Chicago black scene to the East European-infatuated downtown sound, chamber-oriented composition to powerful free slams-and all of it done with a sensitivity that puts music first and ego, effects, and pretension last.

Always attuned to the music's history, Melford is also furthering its global reach. She recently returned from a year in India where, under a Fulbright scholarship, she studied the harmonium— a kind of hand pump organ used in devotional music. "A bunch of friends got me one for my birthday in 1997," she says. "I was thinking it would be really fun to have another keyboard instrument to play in addition to piano, but I wasn't really drawn to electronic instruments. And I wanted something portable. About the same time, I got interested in yoga, which uses a lot of harmonium for chanting and that kind of thing." How will her Indian travels make themselves felt at this weekend's performance? "What somebody might hear at this point is primarily that I learned a lot of great folk tunes," she says.

Melford's harmonium turned up on a few tracks on last year's beautiful trio disc, Dance Beyond the Color (easily one of 2000's best in jazz), where she created a kind of fervid Gypsy processional on "Equal Grace," for instance. Stomu Takeishi, the innovative electric bassist on that recording, will be with Melford at this weekend's performance, along with the young Vietnamese-born trumpeter Cuong Vu, who joined the group last year. Vu spent his teen years in Seattle and is now a fixture at the Knitting Factory. He's released some singular, often very spare, recordings under his own leadership, and Melford says he fits well with her patient song forms. "While he's capable of playing a lot, he often will go for just the perfect note; looking for a melody that will go through the changes rather than playing a lot of scalar kind of things. And I think Stomu shares that sensibility."

The Crush Trio's regular drummer, Kenny Wollensen, can't make the Earshot gig, but this isn't the first time that Melford has employed the unusual piano-bass-trumpet configuration. Last year, she went drumless for a Butoh dance project in Austria, and "it worked so well, I got excited about the possibilities," she says. "Both Stomu and Cuong brought effects and loopers and stuff like that, and I started exploring using more texture and different kinds of rhythmic impulses that we could get. There's a lot you can do very rhythmically without a drummer. I've been exploring that."

Whatever direction she takes, Melford's explorations are never at the expense of her audience but always in the service of some real expressive purpose. Says Melford, "I'm still looking for my own way to bring all the elements that inspire me."

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