Stand under an ancient live oak tree and stare at it. Its branches weave, entwine, and defy any sensible form; its low-lying limbs graze the ground, its roots crack neighboring sidewalks. The live oak is breathtakingly beautiful, following an internal logic based on physical principles, affirming its existence with the sheer weight of its presence. Despite its unexpected and surprising formal structure, no one calls a live oak “avant garde.” Why then, do we describe music possessing complicated roots, exhilarating twists, and atypical patterns this way?
This somewhat ponderous meditation is what springs to mind when I think of Amina Claudine Myers. Along with other early members of Chicago’s pioneering experimental music collective AACM (Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians) — Roscoe Mitchell, Joseph Jarman and Muhal Richard Abrams, plus many others — she blurred poetry, theater, performance and music into a fresh affirmation of life, built on the African-American wellsprings that flow in intrinsic defiance to our nation’s unjust infrastructure. Myers left Chicago in 1976, moving to New York where she worked in Broadway and off-Broadway theater, joined Charlie Haden’s Liberation Music Orchestra, toured with Lester Bowie, and continued her recording career (which had already begun with her appearance on 1969’s Humility in the Light of the Creator LP by Kalaparusha Maurice McIntyre).
Yet Myers’ current solo work is not classifiable within the once liberating (and now progressively ossifying) tropes of “the New Thing.” Instead, it inhabits the ghostly, diasporic realm of the blues — harsh truths manifested as blossoms sprung from sweet pentatonic soil, their meandering melodic vines thriving beneath the celestial shelter of the church or the earthy shroud of the juke joint. And that’s as it should be — from Myers’s birth in Arkansas, to her childhood and teen years in Dallas, her musical life is deeply entwined with this living musical form, as anyone who saw her stirring pair of 2017 performances in Houston will attest. In this respect, she is not “avant garde” — her music is simply music, and will resonate with any breathing being who has known love or sorrow.
My most enduring impression of Myers’s music comes from her performance at the 2015 Vision Festival, in a duo with mercurial bassist Henry Grimes. The spectrally keening strands of Grimes’s bowed strings provided a perfect foil not only for the cascading, complex harmonies of Myers’s piano, but also for the true jewel of the evening — her voice, as complexly fragrant, hazy, hypnotic and enveloping as the canopy of a sprawling oak.
At her April 18 performance for Nameless Sound, Myers will pair that voice with the Hammond B-3, an organ familiar to jazz fans as the chosen axe of Jimmy Smith and Big John Patton (and to rockers, should there be any who’ve made it down this far, of Keith Emerson). I won’t say that missing her performance would be a mistake (as if life can be defined as a series of errors avoided or succumbed to) — but seeing and hearing Amina Claudine Myers play will enrich your soul in ways words won’t ever describe.