Pianist, composer and Guggenheim fellow Myra Melford realizes two long-cherished dreams on her beautiful new release, Life Carries Me This Way (Firehouse 12). The album is both Melford’s first solo piano recording and a tribute to her friend, the late California visual artist Don Reich. Each of the eleven tracks was directly inspired by one of Reich’s rich, colorful canvases, brought to vivid sonic life by Melford’s deeply spiritual and personal compositions.
In the artist’s work, Melford found a range of artistic expression equal to the diversity and vibrancy of her own broad palette of invention. “Don takes a wide range of approaches to painting, from very abstract to almost cartoonish,” she explains in a news release. “Seeing his paintings made me want to play the piano, and his very wide range from abstracts to landscapes to still lifes allowed me to cover a range of my own playing from dense, polytonal, high-energy work to very simple, beautiful melodies. I felt like there was room for all of that in the scope of his artwork.”
Reich, who passed away in 2010 after suggesting a number of artworks for Melford’s interpretation, was a longtime friend of the pianist’s family. It was that closeness that led Melford to choose his work as the basis for her long-awaited solo debut. “There’s something so immediate and personal about any kind of solo,” Melford says. “But particularly for me to play solo piano, I’m completely exposed, I’m not covered up by the orchestration or by other people playing. So that seemed to be the best way for me to communicate personally how I feel about Don’s artwork. There’s no one else to interpret it but me.”
Such personal connections were vital to Melford’s approach to writing this music. Reich’s paintings “Barcelona” and “Sagrada Familia” immediately summoned memories of Melford’s own visits to the Spanish city and its landmark Gaudí-designed church. “My experience in those places was overlaid against stories that Don had told me about being there,” Melford says. “So there were several levels of information that went into informing how the music came about for each piece.”
Most important, perhaps, was Melford’s friendship with the artist, whose personality is laced throughout her meditations on his work. “Don was a really quirky, unique individual and a very joyful person,” she recalls. “He took great pleasure in life and was a really keen observer. He was very sense-oriented, so that also informed my perception and my response to his paintings.”
Typically for Melford, who has drawn inspiration from a number of spiritual, musical and artistic traditions throughout her career, Life Carries Me This Way is a solo album that is still something of a collaborative effort. “Another way to describe that would be a sense of connectedness,” she suggests. “Nothing really exists in a vacuum, and of course all of these connections that are important to me are part of how I express myself as an artist.”
Raised in a Frank Lloyd Wright-designed house, Melford grew up literally surrounded by art, and has since crafted a singular sound world that harmonizes the intricate and the expressive, the meditative and the assertive, the cerebral and the playful. She draws inspiration from a vast spectrum of traditions and disciplines, from the writings of Persian poet Rumi and the Uruguayan journalist Eduardo Galeano to the wisdom of Zen Buddhism and the Huichol Indians of Mexico, to the music of mentors like Jaki Byard, Don Pullen, and Henry Threadgill.
Melford’s palette expands from the piano to the harmonium and electronic keyboards or to amplifying barely audible sounds in the piano’s interior. Her playing can build from the blissful and lyrical to the intense and angular. In 2013, she was named a Guggenheim Fellow and received both the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation’s Performing Artist Award and a Doris Duke Residency to Build Demand for the Arts at San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She was also the winner of the 2012 Alpert Award in the Arts for Music and has been honored numerous times in DownBeat’s Critics Poll since 1991.