Sunday, February 21, 2016

Listening to Prestige Part 173: Gil Melle

Gil Melle is probably best known to jazz history as the guy who introduced Rudy Van Gelder to Blue Note's Alfred Lion. The session never made it to wax, but the recording quality was good enough to draw Lion, and then Bob Weinstock, out to Hackensack.

Melle did eventually record several albums for Blue Note, and a few for Prestige, starting with this one, recorded in two sessions. I wasn't able to listen to any of the April tracks, so I'm getting to the whole album here.

Melle was multi-talented, a graphic artist as well as musician.
Album cover art by Gil Melle
His work was shown in New York galleries, and he designed a number of jazz album covers. His career at this time could be compared to that of Pop artist Larry Rivers, but Rivers was an artist first and a jazz hobbyist; Melle's main focus was music, although he also continued to paint  all of his life, and he eventually moved to the West Coast, where he launched a successful career as a composer of film and TV scores, including The Andromeda Strain and Rod Serling's Night Gallery. The theme music for the 1970 TV show was the first ever to use all electronic instrument, and The Andromeda Strain, in 1971, was probably the first all-electronic movie score.

This quartet session for Prestige uses all traditional instruments, but listening to it, it's not surprising that Melle would grow fascinated with electronic instruments, designing and building many of them himself, and presenting the first ever all-electronic jazz ensemble at the 1967 Monterey Jazz Festival. He's more concerned, especially in "Dominica," with tonal quality, and at first listen, one wonders if he's trying too hard, and intellectualizing the process too much.

On subsequent plays, however,the music becomes much more rewarding, and the ensemble is remarkable.

It's also a little puzzling. The Jazzdisco set list has Melle playing baritone and alto sax, and Bill Phipps playing bass. But Phipps was a baritone sax man, so it could be that he is, in fact, the one on baritone. If he's not, Melle is double-tracking himself, and given his interest in electronic sounds, that's certainly possible. but I think not likely.

So let's give Phipps the credit for some intriguing baritone sax work,  and move on to him, as one of an ensemble of little-known (except for Ed Thigpen) and fascinating musicians.

Except for his work with Melle, Bill Phipps wasn't much of an avant-gardist, although he did once lead a band that featured Grachan Moncur. In fact, he came from a jazz family that was deeply rooted in the tradition. His cousins Ernie and Eugene led a band called the Monarchs of Swing. He and his brother Nat cp-led the group that featured Moncur and Wayne Shorter, and Bill later played with such earthy ensembles as Ray Charles' and Brother Jack McDuff's.

But here with Melle, he understands the demands of the avant garde, and delivers.

Joe Cinderella delivers more than his share, especially on "Ballet Time," my favorite of the set. It also has Melle's strongest soloing.

Where did Melle come up with these guys? Every one of them, it seems, has at least one toe in both the mainstream and avant garde. How avant garde was Joe Cinderella? He worked with John Cage. Avant garde enough for you?  He also worked with Warne Marsh. On the mainstream side of jazz, he worked with Conte Candoli, and deeper into the mainstream of American music, he played on sessions with the Beach Boys and Billy Joel. He's pretty much forgotten today, but he's worth seeking out.

Ed Thigpen is certainly the best known musician in this quartet. Mostly known for his mainstream work with Oscar Peterson, Billy Taylor and Ella Fitzgerald, he also played with Lennie Tristano, who is the godfather of the sort of music Melle plays. He's also from a musical family -- his father played with Andy Kirk's Clouds of Joy.

This album was released, for reasons best known to Gil Melle, as Melle Plays Primitive Modern.

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