Expect Originality In Earshot Jazz Performance By Pianist Myra Melford

Over the past decade, a plethora of forward-thinking Northwest musicians have taken New York's experimental "downtown" scene by storm. One of the first was the creative and original pianist/composer, Myra Melford.

Melford performs tonight at On the Boards as part of the Earshot Jazz Festival in an all-star trio, Equal Interest, with ex-Art Ensemble of Chicago saxophonist Joseph Jarman and violinist Leroy Jenkins. Art Ensemble saxophonist Roscoe Mitchell also plays on the bill.

Melford, 43, is an explosive pianist who alternately caresses and pounds the keyboard and weaves brilliant swatches of composed material into free-form improvisation. She was first swept into the avant-garde in Olympia, while a student at The Evergreen State College.

"I studied with (saxophonist) Bert Wilson," Melford said in a phone interview from her Manhattan home. All the AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Music) guys - Leroy, (Anthony) Braxton, Oliver Lake - came through Olympia."

After Evergreen, Melford spent a year at Cornish College then moved to New York, in 1985. Since then, her star has steadily risen. She is consistently voted a Talent Deserving Wider Recognition by Down Beat magazine and has toured all the major European festivals. Four years ago, she formed The Same River Twice, with former Seattleites Mike Sarin and Chris Speed; the group's latest album, "Above Blue" (Arabesque), is spectacular.

Equal Interest developed out of a quintet project for an AACM concert, two years ago.

"During the session, I decided it would be really fun to play trio with these two guys," recalled Melford. "About the same time, both Joseph and I suggested the same trio for a gig at the Knitting Factory, so it really seemed to be an idea that was right."

This is especially great news for fans of Jarman, who has been mostly AWOL from jazz since retiring from the Art Ensemble to become a Buddhist priest.

"Joseph threw himself full time into running his dojo for two or three years," says Melford. "It's hard to get him to find enough time to get away from there, yet I know he's really enjoying playing."

Melford was booked to play the Earshot Festival four years ago but got food poisoning at a Seattle restaurant the day of her show.

"It's more severely sick than I've ever been in my life," she said. "I'll be skipping lunch this time."

Equal Interest promises to be a high water mark on the 16-day festival, which so far has been outstanding, but has drawn surprisingly meager crowds.

The highlight to this point - and it was a stunner - was the sprawling concert of original music this past Tuesday by trombonist George Lewis, played by Vancouver's New Orchestra Workshop. The well-honed but wild and woolly orchestra seemed to breathe along with the creative and dynamic Lewis, as he alternately danced at the podium cueing musical sections by gesture, sat down to watch, or tore off comic, tornado-like solos.

Earshot has been a trombone love-in. The opening concert by "speedbone" Ray Anderson and his Pocket Brass Band was a blast, thanks in large part to New Orleans drummer Johnny Vidacovich, who whacked an ebullient path for the band's infectious, tuba-driven parade sound.

Sunday night's slapstick performance by the Willem Breuker Kollektief sounded, as always, more like a marching band on amphetamines than a jazz group, but was an enjoyable, if familiar treat.

By contrast, the "Ellington and Strayhorn" show Saturday by the Seattle Repertory Jazz Orchestra was an oddly sleepy, if well-executed tribute. Monday night's collaboration between trombonist Julian Priester and Ghanaian drummer Obo Addy was a warm-spirited, enjoyable celebration. -- Festival update: Percussionist Airto Moreira has dropped out of tomorrow's show with Jovino Santos Neto.

Paul de Barros is a free-lance writer. His Jazz Etc. column appears weekly in Ticket.