That big, bold, brassy sound is coming from Melba’s Kitchen
By Lou Fancher
When members of the 14-piece all-women jazz ensemble known as Melba’s Kitchen gather for rehearsals, there’s a lot cookin’ in the room. On the front burner is Bay Area talent such as the band’s co-founders, trombonist Pat Mullan and saxophonist and multi-instrumentalist Nzingah Smith. Set right next to them are Mary Lou Williams and Melba Liston, two women who appeared on the jazz scene in the 20th century as pioneers of sound in a field traditionally dominated by men. Baking in the oven is a setlist featuring swing, bebop, ballads, and standards with blistering, bold, or tender solos that pop out hot-hot-hot throughout the ensemble’s nuanced, dexterous sets.
The music is tasty, but another draw is that the musicians enjoy each other; laughing, joking, sharing the ups-and-downs of their days and lives, offering an embrace or a pat on the back when the moment calls for comfort, encouraging each other to take risks. Smith in an interview said, “What I love about playing with Melba’s Kitchen is that it’s supportive, not competitive. And at the same time, everyone has grown, improved. When we take a break, it’s hard to get back to the music because we enjoy each other so much. I’m so fortunate to perform with the talented, incredible women in this band.”
That talent will be on full display June 20, when Melba’s Kitchen hits the stage at Yoshi’s in Oakland with a program that spotlights the life and work of Liston, who died in 1999. Mullan—who in 2017 co-founded and led, with Oakland multi-instrumentalist Mwamba Blakwomyn, the ensemble’s first iteration as Mary Lou’s Apartment—said changes within the ensemble and the shift of focus from Williams to Liston occurred organically and for several reasons.
Mullan said the pandemic caused some members to move on, new musicians to join, and others like Smith to step up into leadership. “The pandemic did so many difficult things to people. We had Zoom meetings and kept each other up on our music, but the music we perform is difficult, sophisticated, hard to play. I’ve been taken aback and taken joy that folks keep coming in to rehearse. There’s a synergy to the band I’ll say is kindness, joy, political action, and fun. Kindness is an underlying difference you can’t make happen. For example, in rehearsal I walked up and told the lead alto player that the second alto player couldn’t make it. She looked up and said, ‘I’m so sad, because I was looking forward to hearing and seeing her.'”
The shift of focus from Williams to Liston traces a path to pre-COVID performances when Mullan said the group was doing a good job of putting out Mary Lou Williams’ name and work. Liston’s legacy as a masterful arranger and trombonist, even though they’d been performing her music, was buried deeply, not even on most people’s radar. “She has a beautiful archive of music, but only one record out there that recognized her as a leader,” Mullan said. “I had a personal relationship with her and a connection that meant I knew her story and what she went through as a Black woman in jazz. With her musicality and sophistication, I wanted to bring forward her existence as a prodigy who could write out music in high school. She had a long career in Los Angles and got picked up by the greats.”
It’s likely Liston became an A-list, highly sought musician and arranger because her style was self-effacing and her compositions and arrangements differed from other big band writing. “She had an approach that was humble and writing that’s not that heavy, theoretic structure others had. And the crazy chords she could come up with? She was a melody person who wrote gorgeous, lush sound. It’s “oblique harmony” rather than vertical. She comes at the next set of sounds from the side. It’s looser, individualistic.”
As a trombonist, Liston had incredible perseverance and endurance. While still a young girl growing up in Kansas City, she pointed to a trombone in the window of a store and told her mother she wanted it because “it was pretty.” Her mother bought it and Liston went home and taught herself to play—then never stopped. “When in 1985 she had a stroke and couldn’t hold the trombone anymore, she kept working,” Mullan recalled. “She got that iMac and the printer and kept writing and arranging music. There’s a beautiful piece called “The Garden Wall” for four trombones, pumped out on paper that still has the punched-out edges of a dot matrix paper.”
On the setlist for Yoshi’s is “You Don’t Say.” Mullan said because no sheet music exists, the arrangement written for the ensemble by pianist Dee Spencer is based entirely on the recording. To Mullan, the song represents the ease Liston had with the big band music of her time. “Jazz was her bread-and-butter. It shows her character; restrained, not glamorous, but solid and funny. It’s medium tempo with a lot of solo space and very tricky ensemble moments that put the pressure on.”
Mullan rendered a vocal version--be-de-dah, be-de-dah,—and paused to note, “it has licks in there so there’s a lot going on.” The bop tune is tight and swings. Mullan said everyone feels much better after playing it than when they started. “You can go through bad traffic, kids getting sick, other things, but after you play it or hear it, you feel great.”
Smith serves as music director for Melba’s Kitchen and had played clarinet or swung to playing trumpet parts on the soprano sax until a chair position for a second and sometimes lead alto opened up. Because she also teaches music to kids, she’s good at running rehearsals and her ear is highly developed for knowing how to improve sound—does a tune need more swing, a dusting up, some modernizing, etc.
A piece Smith is eager to perform at Yoshi’s is “Ben Loves Lu.” The chord changes in a sax solo she plays “just fall right” and the flow of the chromatic tones reminds her of teachers under whom she once studied at Jazzmobile in Harlem and the music of the Count Basie era. “(My teachers) were Basie alumnae. I learned to play from those musicians. I guess I love the song because it’s Basie vibe goes back to my music educational roots.”
Liston’s sound, Smith said is rich, but not too rich. “It’s like a shortbread cookie that’s not too greasy.” Another piece, “Just Waiting,” is similarly sweet, but not too sweet. “You Don’t Say,” which Liston joined Mullan in saying it has become a favorite, she values for an uptempo energy and the response from audiences that comes from the work’s call-and-response based on a three-note phrase. “There’s contrast and contrast is something we all listen for, whether or not we know it. They did a study with people listening to a solo and the ones that had some jazz clichés but also some new material, people thought it was a brilliant piece of music. If the music was all the same, people were bored. If it was all new, they said it was disorganized.”
Importantly, Smith said call-and-response is African music and is part of what Africans and African Americans gave to this country. Which is all the more reason for calling attention to Black women artists like Williams and Liston. Gender inequity in the field, she said is a condition she has made it her challenge to change. “I teach music to 3rd through 5th grade students at a private school, but also I have at the Oakland Public Conservatory of Music, a program called Black Girls Play. We have a flute and sax class. Young Black girls learn to play instruments in a supportive setting. They don’t have to deal with any of the stuff Melba dealt with; the racism of her time, the segregation. In this program, they see people who look like them playing these instruments. I’m forever grateful to Melba Liston and Mary Lou Williams because we stand on their shoulders. They went through horrendous things but they knew how to persevere. That’s the reality of being Black in America. We live in a racist society.”
Smith notes it’s important to let people know Williams and Liston weren’t treated with misogyny from all male musicians and composers, nor has she been. “It’s funny, they and I get the least attitude from the best musicians, the top musicians. They realize there’s great music being created or played by women and they want to get at that. They have the least to fear because they know they’re good and aren’t threatened by women who might play an instrument better than they do.”
The primary things Mullan wants people to learn about Liston—in addition to simply being aware of her contribution to jazz and enjoying it—relate to her skills as a performer and arranger. As a trombonist, Liston laid out a “big, round, warm sound” and preferred ballads, according to Mullan. “It’s a tough horn to play and tough to play it gracefully and beautifully, as she did.” As an arranger, she was versatile. “She could write for everybody, write for strings, for any instrument, and for all-male bands with guys twenty years older than she was. Melba Liston was a Black woman, but also a musical genius on the level of Ellington, Strayhorn and John Coltrane. The name recognition those three guys got is enormous in comparison.
“At this point to get appreciation of a person who had just as much to offer in terms of her music, art and ability to get along with other people, it’s a privilege. My job is to help myself and others hear it.”