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Gil Melle was a prolific composer and player of both baritone and tenor saxophones. He was born on December 31, 1931 in New York City and died on October 28, 2004 in Malibu, California. When he was 16 years old he lied about his age and enlisted in the Marine Corps. After his discharge two years later he played jazz in, to quote him, “countless gin joints.” At age 19, he became the first white musician signed by the Blue Note label.
[Before I go any further, I would like to once again thank pianist Beverly Ritzfor giving me the copy of this CD that I have. I had never heard of Gil Melle, except for his “Night Gallery” work, before that. Thanks, Beverly! You can also read my thoughts on Beverly’s latest CD, “Buddy & Me,” here.]
Besides being an accomplished musician, Melle was quite an artist. His work was displayed in a number of galleries, and was also featured on several albums by Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins, as well as some of his own recordings.
Melle was an early proponent of electronic music, and his score for Rod Serling’s “Night Gallery” is a fine example of his work in that vein. He also composed music, electronic and otherwise, for several other TV series and movies, including “Kolchak: The Night Stalker,” “The Andromeda Strain,” “The Six Million Dollar Man,” and the groundbreaking 1972 ABC-TV Movie Of The Week, “That Certain Summer.
According to this profile of him appearing on the allmusic.com web site, Melle wrote the scores for over 125 films during his career.
The Complete Blue Note Fifties Sessions – 1998
The Gil Melle album I am going to discuss this week is the gigantic 1998 two-disk compendium, “The Complete Blue Note Fifties Sessions.” This huge work brings us 31 examples of Melle’s best work. A staggering 23 of these songs are from Melle’s own pen!
I will not be discussing all 31 songs today. That would be beyond the scope of this blog’s modest intent. I will hit on the bright spots, however, and cover as many of them as I can.
The “collective personnel,” as they are referred to in the liner notes, are:
Gil Melle, tenor and baritone saxophone
Eddie Bert, trombone
Urbie Green, trombone
Tal Farlow, guitar
Lou Mecca, guitar
Clyde Lombardi, bass
Bill Phillips, bass
Oscar Pettiford, bass
Red Mitchell, bass
Max Roach, drums
Joe Morello, drums
Ed Thigpen, drums
The songs included on this two-disk extravaganza were culled from several recording sessions. The earliest were recorded on March 2, 1952; the most recent were laid down on April 1, 1956. (Refer to the two panels at the end of this article for a more detailed discography and list of the personnel involved in each session.)
The recording engineer for all sessions was the legendary Rudy Van Gelder, whose career was given a gigantic boost by Melle when the musician introduced him to Alfred Lion, founder of Blue Note Records. Van Gelder went on to record nearly every session Blue Note session between 1953 and 1967.
The album opens with two of Melle’s earliest compositions. “Four Moons” (track 1) and “The Gears” (track 2). The latter was written when Melle was all of 14 years old and working as a messenger boy for the Lehigh Valley Railroad. Red Mitchell’s bass opens the piece, and throughout maintains a cadence that brings to mind an old steam locomotive. As you listen to “The Gears,” it’s difficult to believe that a 14 year old boy wrote it. There is an odd (uncredited) vocal element added to the beginning of the song that, for my money, could have been left out. But all-in-all, it’s a remarkable work.
[In the liner notes for this album, Melle noted that “It was virtually unheard of in those days to use the voice as an instrument (excepting ‘scat’) as I did in this piece.” He does not, however, name the person whose voice was thusly used so unconventionally on this and other songs to follow.]
“Four Moons” was written a few years later and displays a more sophisticated approach. The opening has a tinge of Latin influence, just a hint, that reappears now and then. Red Mitchell on bass and Max Roach on drums are standouts. It’s a beautifully mellow piece of music.
“Cylcotron” takes off at a brisk pace from the first note. It’s a lively song that will lift your spirits if they are low, and kick them into high gear if they are not! Eddie Bert’s trombone playing is a remarkable addition to a song that was already noteworthy.
“Under Capricorn” is another animated number that gives you a friendly, happy lift. Tal Farlow’s fretwork and Clyde Lombardi on bass give this one a little extra something.
“Venus” is another of Melle’s early works, from around the same time that he wrote “Four Moons.” One of the significant things about “Venus” is, of course, the fact that it was written by someone still in his teens, really more boy than man. But that is far from the only thing about “Venus” that is remarkable. It has a sexy mellowness that lifts you up and draws you in, like a fly drawn to a Venus Flytrap, to stretch a metaphor.
Skipping ahead we find ourselves listening to the George Shearing/George David Weiss standard, “Lullaby Of Birdland.” This song is a showcase for guitarist Lou Mecca, whom I had never heard of before this. Melle switches to the bari sax for this one, and it’s obvious that all those lonely hours he spent practicing in LVR’s empty boxcars was time well spent. The two of them “own” this song, in modern parlance.
From “Lullaby Of Birdland” we move on to another Melle original, “Ballad For Guitar,” featuring the afore-mentioned Lou Mecca on the title instrument. Mecca has the first minute of this one to himself, then Melle steps in with that deep, rich bari of his. Bill Phillips on bass and Vinnie Thomas on drums pop in now and then as needed to put the finishing touches on a nice little song that manages to be mellow and uplifting at the same time. But mostly this is Meccaand his guitar.
[I was very disappointed to learn that Mecca dabbled on the side as a chiropractor, a “profession” that I would put right up there with clairvoyant and religious instructor on the “worthless to humanity” board.]
Having said that, I just passed the 1,000 word mark and we still have one more disk with a dozen songs on it to cover. Let’s get right to it!
Disk 2 opens with the George & Ira Gershwin/Dubose Heyward classic, “Summertime.” This one features the same ensemble as “Lullaby Of Birdland” and “Ballad For Guitar,” and is a quiet little ballad that will relax you right to sleep if you let it.
Melle’s “Quadrille For Moderns” is next. Once again we have the same musicians but at a faster pace that allows them to stretch out. This is an odd song, but I like it none-the-less.
“Life Begins At Midnight” could have been my personal theme song when I was in my 20’s. Here it opens with the incredible low notes of Don Butterfield playing, of all things, a tuba, before Melle steps in with that big, deep baritone sax, followed once again by Mecca and Phillips. Melle hits the higher end of the bari’s range for a while, to interesting effect.
The title “Night Train To Wildwood” sounds on the surface as though it could be the theme from one of Serling’s “Night Gallery” episodes. It is not, of course, but it is a lively, bright song that once more gives us a front row seat for Mecca’s splendid fretwork, Melle’s bari, and, yes, Butterfield’s tuba.
Speaking of “Night Gallery,” here is the opening theme from that homage to the weird, as written by Melle. I’ve always loved this oddball theme, partly because it reminds me of the electronic score for another groundbreaking film project, “Forbidden Planet.”
On a somewhat more traditional note, here is Melle’s theme for “Kolchak: The Nightstalker.”
Other great numbers to listen for include “Threadneedle Street,” “Weird Valley,” “The Set Break,” and “The Arab Barber Blues.”
In fact, here is “The Set Break.”
And, “The Arab Barber Blues.”
Gel Melle was a tremendous talent who touched the lives of many people through his music, both in the jazz world and the entertainment world. Needless to say, I believe you will find Gil Melle’s “The Complete Blue Note Sessions” to be a wonderful addition to your personal playlist for a Saturday, or any other night!
There does not appear to be an “official” Gil Melle web presence, but you can learn more about Melle and his music by visiting the following pages. His music is, of course, available online at all the usual places.
Over at JazzWax.com, Marc Myers has written an outstanding article about Melle that you can read here.
Stephen Thomas Erlewine has written a nice bio of Melle for the AllMusic.com web site, which you can access here.
The Internet Move Database has a nice bio of him here. This one focuses mainly on his work for TV and the movies, for obvious reasons.
Discography part 1
Discography part 2
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Copyright © 2013 by Al Evans. All rights reserved.