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Music Notes: at home with improvisation

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Epiphanies, by their nature, tend to just arrive--you can't usually schedule them. An exception takes place this weekend, when the Unity Temple in Oak Park hosts a concert by the invigorating jazz pianist Myra Melford, who credits the temple's designer, Frank Lloyd Wright, as a major influence on her work.

Yes, yes--Wright drew buildings, Melford makes music. But Melford, who left Chicago in the 1980s for New York, punched through that barrier long ago, using not only Wright's architecture but also his writings as inspiration. (One of her first major compositions is called "Frank Lloyd Wright Goes West to Rest," a title taken from a newspaper article about the transferal of Wright's remains from Wisconsin to Arizona.) As Melford explained in a recent lecture on the parallels between architecture and music, she tries to create an "aural space" with her widely praised compositions and her invitingly rigorous improvising--"a space that is not only satisfying on a structural level, but that also allows the individual listener or player to have one's own experience within it...I think great music, great architecture, or any great art gives us that."

As a child, Melford found herself quite literally surrounded by Wright's influence: she grew up in a Wright-designed home in suburban Glencoe, a Prairie-style beauty constructed in 1915. "The exterior was white stucco with dark brown wood trim defining the major horizontal lines. I remember in winter it blended beautifully with the snow and the bare trees around it. There were many windows; there was one in particular, an interior window bisected with wooden slats between the staircase and the living room, allowing in air, light, and sound. Everything exemplified Wright's idea that the wall-as-wall was vanishing--that interior space should be fluid, not boxy, and should flow out and blend into the surrounding landscape." It's almost too easy to apply that description to Melford's own compositions--with their strong yet open-ended compositional forms--and to her piano playing, which engages those compositions in an osmotic give-and-take with the members of her trio.

In high school, Melford's classical training expanded to include studies with Erwin Helfer, the Chicago blues 'n' boogie piano master. She also began to research Wright's architecture and the philosophy behind it, and eventually, she said, "I realized there were certain of his ideas I could apply to creating music." Soon she learned this was no one-way boulevard--just as the musician had gravitated toward Wright's metier, the architect himself had written of his connection to music. In his memoirs, Wright told how the music of Beethoven had "stirred me strangely" when he heard it as a youngster; he also wrote, "I know there are possibilities in the way of putting things together that are to my eyes or sense of fitness what music is to my ear or sense of sound."

Wright spoke of the "potential poetry" in architecture, which could be realized in the creation of a building "free in form...that expresses [the] inner harmonies perfectly, outwardly, whatever shape they take." Melford found in that statement a valid metaphor for her own free-form explorations of sound and texture and her efforts to craft "an invisible seam between what was notated and improvised"; these considerations have evolved into hallmarks of her work. Largely due to the cantilevered construction of her compositions, Melford's several albums are among the most organized and exciting new-music recordings of the decade. (They feature bassist Lindsey Horner and drummer Reggie Nicholson, a former Chicagoan, both of whom will appear with Melford in Oak Park.) She has continued to explore not only Wright's work but architecture in general: her album Even the Sounds Shine includes a piece inspired by wandering into a Spanish mosque that her guidebook likened to "a meditation in stone."

These days, Melford experiments with new techniques to achieve an overlapping of improvisation and notated music, "one plane of music dissolving to reveal another and another." She might just as well be describing the space within the Unity Temple, the 1908 Wright marvel in which walls and beams, fixtures and window treatments, stairwells and mezzanines reveal interlocking planes of interior space.

The epiphany has been scheduled.

The Myra Melford Trio plays Sunday, 6 PM, at Unity Temple, 875 Lake, Oak Park; 708-383-8873. --Neil Tesser

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo of Myra Melford by Lauren Deutsch.

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