Duo connects with each other and audience

Boston Globe, May 11, 2007

There is an aura of difficulty that hangs over creative improvisation – an art form at the confines of jazz, in which musicians expound together and in the moment, often with no predetermined structure or plan. It’s difficult to perform: It demands that each musician combine self-assured technique with the capacity to intensely and closely listen to the others. And all too often, it’s difficult to hear, offering the audience little in the way of signposts or emotional cues.

To all but the most cerebral and obsessive listeners, this hermetic quality is a major turnoff. Fortunately, from time to time a creative improvisation project comes around that achieves its musical ends in a manner that is open, accessible, and sincere. The 19 concise and moving improvisations that make up “Heart Mountain,” a new album by violist-violinist Tanya Kalmanovitch and pianist Myra Melford, draw us into the inner sanctum of the creative process without attitude or fear; they put us in the presence of music.

Kalmanovitch and Melford visit the Lily Pad in Cambridge on Wednesday; the galleryish setting is typical for this type of music, which gets lumped into the grab bag of “avant-garde” and never makes much money for anyone. Be that as it may, the intimate space offers lovers of classical music, in which both women trained, and jazz, the vernacular to which they are closest, the opportunity to be present at a creation: to witness a musical encounter and contribute to its energy.

Appropriately enough, the collaboration behind “Heart Mountain” stems from an act of improvisation. In 2003 the director of the Guelph Jazz Festival in Canada, where the two women were playing separately, asked them to perform together. Melford, an established pianist who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley, had never heard of Kalmanovitch, a journeywoman with an unusual trajectory: She grew up in northern Alberta and trained at Juilliard, and though she is now based in New York, she was at the time living in Calgary supporting herself by playing fiddle in country and Irish bands.

In separate telephone interviews, both women describe the connection they felt almost from the outset of their accidental collaboration.

“It was really a delightful surprise,” Melford says of working with Kalmanovitch. “I didn’t know her music prior to meeting her. We just had a short time together, we played, and it was a very successful concert.”

Kalmanovitch returns the favor: “I would imagine she’d be apprehensive,” she says of Melford, “but she’s extraordinarily open-minded. I sent her some recordings and I suggested that we just play free. And there was a great moment of mutual recognition about a minute or two into the performance.”

In part, the connection reflects shared artistic interests and concerns. “We are both trained in classical music,” Melford says. “We both have an interest in Indian music, she in the south and me in the north. And we have a shared background in jazz improvisation. All of these worlds came together in the project.” Indian music, Melford says, supplied ideas about melody, tonal center techniques, and rhythm. Its influence is also manifest when Melford switches to harmonium, an instrument that Indian music uses as a drone but that Melford experiments with placing at the center.

But in creative improvisation the musical specifics are in a sense less important than the way that the artists interact in the moment with each other and their audience. No two performances are the same; each, Kalmanovitch says, is a unique, sacred space.

“It’s sort of a model for the way one might hope to live,” she says. “With an open mind, from the heart, accepting and adventurous. Improvisation makes manifest a way of being with other people. And it’s also a way of inviting audiences into that moment. We can create a protected space. It takes a lot to get there, especially in the current economic climate for creative music – a lot of time, energy, and resources. But that moment, the moment right before you play, is a moment pregnant with infinite possibilities.”

She likens the feeling of a successful improvisation to “a really great conversation with strangers, on a train or a plane, which is also a protected space.”

It’s this attention to openness, in particular, that led Kalmanovitch and Melford to decide to play short pieces. This economy is rare and refreshing in the world of improvised music, which Kalmanovitch says is “sometimes reactionary” and deliberately opaque, with a machismo-tinged premium placed on the stamina of both musicians and audience members.

“It has very masculine values of power and authority,” Kalmanovitch says. “You go to a concert and nobody speaks to you, you don’t know if there’s going to be a break, you desperately need a drink. … I’m not sure that the human attention span is meant to last through 60 minutes of uninterrupted aural assaults. So I found myself wanting to play shorter improvisations. I think of them as miniatures. I can explore each one thoroughly while maintaining a kind of compositional structure.”

Kalmanovitch’s remote Canadian frontier background keeps her feeling – not unhappily – something of an outsider in the New York arts scene. She credits these roots and her time as a working musician playing to get by in multiple settings – alternative rock bands in college, Saturday-night country gigs in prairie towns, weddings and functions today – with keeping her attuned to the audience even when playing complex and cerebral music.

“I try to play the way that I would want to hear,” she says. “When I came back to playing jazz, I wanted to keep that connection with the audience. I still feel this tremendous sense of gratitude that anyone showed up at all.”