Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Listening to Prestige 204: Gil Melle

Gene Ammons getting funky. Now, that makes sense. But...Gil Mellé?

Well, maybe funk for star people is a little different. Maybe it varies from asteroid to asteroid. Or maybe Mellé really is getting funky. Or maybe some combination of all of the above.

Mellé was getting ready to leave for Hollywood, and beyond: the Andromeda galaxy, and next stop...the Twilight Zone (or at least Rod Serling's Night Gallery). But meanwhile, he was still in New York, still in Hackensack, still doing a Friday with Rudy, and still working with some of the best jazz musicians New York had to offer.

Unfortunately, if he was planning to take this album with him as a keepsake to remember New York by, it was not to happen. The session was never released until many years later, as bonus tracks on the CD reissue of Gil's Guests. And because that CD threw together three different sessions with different musicians, these tracks are generally credited to Gil Mellé with Donald Byrd and Phil Woods, neither of whom actually appear on them.

But not to worry, there are plenty of great musicians, and guys who could get funky. Mellé follows his earlier formula of billing the session as a quartet plus guests, although actually the guests are more familiar to a Mellé session than half of the quartet. Art Farmer has appeared before as a Gil's Guest, and so has Hal McKusick (twice). Seldon Powell, primarily a rhythm and blues player, provides plenty of funk (and as jazz got funkier, he would be called on more and more for jazz sessions).

Teddy Charles provides the intergalactic balance, cool and clear and distant, particularly on "Golden Age."

Joe Cinderella is back as Mellé's right hand man, but the bass and drums are new--to Mellé, that is. Certainly not to jazz. And they are very much of this earth, rooted to the roots of jazz. They also aren't guys you'd grab up because they were just hanging around the studio, or because you'd seen their names on other Prestige sessions (although Shadow Wilson had done three, with Tadd Dameron, Earl Coleman and Sonny Stitt). Mellé must have given these selections a lot of thought, and reached out for players who had those roots. Wilson went back to the rhythm and blues of Lucky Millinder and Tiny Bradshaw, and the big band swing of Earl Hines, Lionel Hampton and Count Basie, although he was only 40 when he died, two years later, of a heroin overdose.

George Duvivier also went back to Lucky Millinder and Cab Calloway, although he made perhaps his
greatest mark with his 1953 recordings as a member of Bud Powell's trio. New to Prestige, he would be back with the label, and with funk, as the bassist on a number of Gene Ammons' recordings. It's hard to overestimate what he contributes here. He swings, he funks, he solos.

All the compositions are Mellé's, of course. He was looking very much in his own direction, and he wasn't going to find it improvising on the chord changes to "Stella by Starlight." He wasn't particularly an improviser either, and his future didn't lie in jazz, but he was drawn to jazz for a reason, and that included using gifted improvisers like Art Farmer.

Mellé was a very talented guy. He was a graphic artist, an inventor of electronic instruments, a composer. Jazz is a demanding mistress It's not an art that you dabble in, and a jack-of-all-trades isn't necessarily going to be able to pull it off. But Mellé did. He made a contribution to the music. And he discovered Rudy Van Gelder.

No picture of the album cover this time, since this session only became a years-later afterthought to a CD reissue. It deserved better.

 Order Listening to Prestige, Vol. 1 here.

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