Amina Claudine Myers, a Singer Who Still Needs No Words
Sept. 14, 2018
Amina Claudine Myers has recorded 11 albums as a leader since 1979. In October, she’ll debut a new program at the Community Church in Midtown.Amanda Hakan for The New York Times
Amina Claudine Myers was sitting in her apartment in Hell’s Kitchen, surrounded by paintings and photographs as she recalled a rehearsal there almost 40 years ago. She’d been playing the same baby grand piano that sits in the living room today, and Cecil McBee had brought his upright bass. She recalled that sounds came spontaneously to her lips. “I do remember thinking: You don’t need words to express,” she said. “Just your voice, the sound, can relay a message.”
Ms. Myers plays the same baby grand piano in her home that she did 40 years ago.Amanda Hakan for The New York Times
The wordless song that emerged became “African Blues,” the finale of her rousing 1980 album, “Amina Claudine Myers Salutes Bessie Smith,” and a good distillation of her powers.
Now 76, Ms. Myers never became a top name, but devotees know her as an uncategorizable force, someone who can communicate powerfully through poetry, piano, organ and voice, and even as an actor. She has recorded 11 albums as a leader since 1979 — mostly solo or trio efforts — but her legacy runs much deeper.
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When she sings, especially without words, Ms. Myers’s voice can work like a horn or a drum — an instrument in which air passes straight through, responding directly to the vessel. Her vocals don’t have the clothespin tightness of a scat singer or the loose delirium of a gospel crescendo, but you can hear her savoring every note.
In her piano playing, the blues, the black church, classical music and free improvising coexist. She often paints in warm, billowing sheets, skirting both the classic lexicon of traditional jazz and the brazen outsiderism of the avant-garde.
In recent years, Ms. Myers has been performing solo almost exclusively.Amanda Hakan for The New York Times
On Oct. 19, in a performance at the Community Church in Midtown, Ms. Myers will debut a new program celebrating the classic gospel groups of the 1950s. The music will also reach into Ms. Myers’s songbook, and the black spirituals of the slavery era. She’ll be joined by Generation IV, a group featuring Pyeng Threadgill, Luna Threadgill-Moderbacher and Richarda Abrams, all children and grandchildren of Ms. Myers’s longtime associates in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians, or A.A.C.M. And, covering the repertory of groups like the Staples Singers and the Gospel Harmonettes, she’ll be accompanied by memories of her own childhood.
Born in 1942 in the tiny hamlet of Blackwell, Ark., Ms. Myers grew up playing the piano at Baptist and Methodist church functions, and leading gospel quartets. After graduating from college, she moved to Chicago and in 1966 joined the A.A.C.M., a newly formed group of black composers dedicated to shepherding one another’s work. She developed a particularly close musical partnership with the pianist Muhal Richard Abrams (“my spiritual brother,” she said). At the same time, she was gigging with Gene Ammons and Sonny Stitt, eminent soul-jazz figures. She soon began writing poetry and setting it to music. Her first serious work was “I Dream,” a set of songs for choir and band.
She continues to compose ambitious, large-form pieces — a long-gestating opera based on the life of Harriet Tubman remains in the works — but of late Ms. Myers has been performing solo almost exclusively. The shows I’ve seen have been transcendent. In 2016, playing at the Community Church, she sang a tired, disillusioned, defiant original, her voice rising on a slant as she repeated a biting refrain: “Ain’t nobody ever gonna hear nobody hearing us now.” But moments later, drawing the concert to a close, she played a simple, lapping, major-to-minor progression, and insisted on gratitude. “Thank you for life,” she sang. “Thank you for blessings/Thank you for family/Thank you.”