She recorded with saxophonist Dexter Gordon in 1947, and joined Dizzy Gillespie's big band (which included saxophonists John Coltrane, Paul Gonsalves, and pianist John Lewis) in New York for a time, when Wilson disbanded his orchestra in 1948. She toured with Count Basie for a time, and then with Billie Holliday (1949) but was so profoundly affected by the indifference of the audiences and the rigors of the road that she gave up playing. She took a clerical job for some years, and supplemented her income by taking work as an extra in Hollywood, including appearances in The Prodigal (1955) and The Ten Commandments (1956). She re-joined Gillespie for tours sponsored by the US State Department in 1956 and 1957, recorded with Art Blakey's Jazz Messengers (1957), and formed her own all-women quintet in 1958. In 1959, she visited Europe with the show Free and Easy, for which Quincy Jones was music director.
She accompanied Mr.B (Billy Eckstine) with the Orchestra of Quincy Jones ("At Basin Street East": original release, Oct. 1 1961 for Verve Records). In the 1960s she began collaborating with pianist Randy Weston, arranging compositions (primarily his own) for mid-size to large ensembles. This association, especially strong in the 1960s, would be rekindled in the late 1980s and 1990s until her death. In addition, she worked for a variety of leaders including Milt Jackson, Clark Terry, and Johnny Griffin, as well as working as an arranger for various Motown Records, even appearing on albums by Ray Charles and others.
In 1971 she was chosen as Musical Arranger for a Stax Records recording artist named Calvin Scott whose album was being produced by Stevie Wonder's first producer Clarence Paul. As Musical Arranger on this project she worked with Joe Sample and Wilton Felder of The Jazz Crusaders, blues guitarist Arthur Adams, and jazz drummer Paul Humphrey. Due to the financial issues at Stax Records when this album was released in 1972 the album did not chart, but Melba's arrangements on the album contains some of her finest works ever and is a must listen. In 1973, however, she once again took a hiatus from her U.S.-based musical projects, moving to Jamaica to teach at the Jamaica School of Music for six years (1973–1979), before returning to the USA to lead her own bands. During her time in Jamaica, she composed and arranged the music for the classic 1975 comedy film, "Smile Orange" (starring Carl Bradshaw, who three years earlier starred in the very first Jamaican film, "The Harder They Come").
The "Smile Orange" experience was probably her only known venture into composing Reggae music (which, in this case, she collaborated with playwright Trevor Rhone for the lyrics). Sadly, a soundtrack album release for Smile Orange was never released or made available. She was forced to give up playing in 1985 after a stroke left her partially paralyzed, but she continued to arrange music with Randy Weston. In 1987, she was awarded the “Jazz Masters Fellowship” of the National Endowment for the Arts. After suffering from repeated strokes, she died in Los Angeles, California in 1999, a few days after a major tribute to her and Randy Weston’s music at Harvard University.
Her funeral, held at St. Peter’s in Manhattan, featured extensive musical performances by Weston with Jann Parker (performing Liston’s composition, “African Lady”), as well as by Chico O’Farrill’s Afro Cuban ensemble and by Lorenzo Shihab (vocals). Composing & Arranging Melba Liston made a reputation as an important jazz arranger, no small achievement in a field generally dominated by men. Her early work with the high-profile bands of Count Basie and Dizzy Gillespie shows a strong command of the big-band and bop idioms. However, perhaps her most important work was written for Randy Weston, with whom she worked for four decades from the early 60s.
The critically-acclaimed albums Uhuru Afrika (1960) and Highlife (1963), both of which feature exclusively Weston’s compositions with Liston’s arrangements for large ensemble, are considered jazz masterpieces. Uhuru Afrika, as described in the liner notes by Langston Hughes (who penned lyrics for the second movement), is “a composed composition...and an ordered and arranged composition”; the work, broken into four long movements, demonstrates Liston’s abilities to blend African-oriented rhythms and percussion with jazz horn-playing and orchestration in a large-scale form. In many respects, this album and Highlife three years later, can be seen as comparable works to those of Miles Davis and Gil Evans of roughly the same period, but oriented toward Africa and African musics instead of the European-influenced harmonies and melodies in the Davis/Evans works. These two Weston-Liston also presage the rising awareness of and explicit prominence given to African music in the 1960s, especially as part of the free jazz / ”New Thing” movement. Musical style Melba Liston’s musical style reflects bebop and post-bop sensibilities, not surprising given her stints working with such major bop figures as Dexter Gordon, Dizzy Gillespie, and Art Blakey.
Even in her earliest recorded work, such as Gordon’s “Mischievous Lady,” a tribute to her-—her solos show an apt blend of motivic and linear improvisation, though they seem to make less use of extended harmonies and alterations. Her well-known solo on Dizzy Gillespie’s version of Debussy’s “My Reverie” shows her strong sense of lyricism, as well. Her arrangements, especially those with Weston, show a constant flexibility that transcends her musical upbringing in the bebop 1940s, whether working in the styles of swing, post-bop, African musics, or even Motown. Her strong command of rhythmic gestures, grooves, and polyrhythms is particularly notable (again, as illustrated especially in Uhuru Afrika and High Life). Her instrumental parts demonstrate an active use of harmonic possibilities; although her arrangements suggest relatively subdued interest in the explorations of free jazz ensembles, they certainly use an extended tonal vocabulary, rich with altered harmonic voicings, thick layering, and dissonance.
Her work throughout her career has been well-received by both critics and audiences alike. Read more on Last.fm. User-contributed text is available under the Creative Commons By-SA License; additional terms may apply..
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