Muldrow, 37, grew up in a family of jazz musicians in Los Angeles. Her father, Ronald Muldrow, was a guitarist who worked for decades with the soul-jazz saxophonist Eddie Harris. Her mother, Rickie Byars-Beckwith, sang with the saxophonist Pharoah Sanders and the pianist Roland Hanna.
Alice Coltrane, a family friend, gave Muldrow the spiritual name Jyoti, which can mean “light” or “celestial flame”; Muldrow has billed herself as Jyoti for her most jazz-influenced albums, including last year’s widely praised “Mama, You Can Bet!,” which included daring remakes of Charles Mingus compositions alongside her own songs.
In the early 2000s, Muldrow came to New York City to study jazz at the New School, majoring in voice. But she dropped out, she said, because, “I didn’t like the boxes they have for people. I feel as though we go out of the box just to survive emotionally as Black folk. We’re doing this for our emotional upliftment. The searching for one’s inner power and one’s inner ownership and one’s language — that’s what brings this music forward.”
The teenage Muldrow delved into electronic music, building beats and devising abstract sounds on drum machines, synthesizers and computers. “The allure of technology and sound design and sound creation with computers was my experience as a composer of being listened to,” she said. “Regardless of how I look, regardless of my gender, regardless of my race, the computer listened to me.”
One of her mentors and collaborators was Don Preston, who had played keyboards for Frank Zappa’s Mothers of Invention in the 1960s and ’70s and was Meredith Monk’s musical director. He encouraged her to work with the experimental synthesis that she now considers a “cornerstone” of her music. On “Fifth Shield,” a manifesto from her 2015 album “A Thoughtiverse Unmarred,” she rapped, “I know I’m abstract — it ain’t for everybody.”
For Muldrow, the parameters that control synthesizer tones — attack, decay, sustain and release — offer lessons beyond the recording studio. “I’ll make everything a metaphor,” she said with a laugh. “The way we attack things shapes our lives, the way we hold on to things shapes our lives, the way we let go of things shapes our lives. That’s what makes me dig deeper every time I make music.”