In the 1950s, there were jazz musicians who lived so far into the future intellectually that other musicians from the period called them "far out." Gil Melle was one of those "out of sight" artists. But to merely refer to Melle (pronounced Mell-AY) as a jazz baritone saxophonist doesn't fully explain this creative dynamo who today is largely forgotten. In addition to recording fascinating albums of atonal and linear jazz for Blue Note and Prestige between 1952 and 1957, Melle created artwork for the covers of LPs by Miles Davis, Thelonious Monk, Sonny Rollins and others. During the 1960s and beyond Melle composed steadily for TV and the movies, and his inventions of electronic instruments and recordings also broke new ground.
I spoke with saxophonist and Melle bandmate Hal McKusick and film director Raymond De Felitta, who as a teen often wandered over to Melle's house. More with both gentlemen in a moment.
What perhaps is most remarkable about Melle is that he never had a formal music lesson. Much of his ability, he said in his writings, was learned through associations with jazz musicians and their music. As Melle developed, he had little patience for standards and tended to focus instead on composing original jazz-classical works that were highly imaginative and invigorating both to jazz musicians and advanced listeners.
Melle was a quick study, often able to absorb the complexities of jazz and classical with a single listen. In Melle's favor was his complete lack of fear and concern about what others thought, which freed him to create and drew powerful risk-takers near. He had no trouble doing his own futurist thing and had a gift for convincing those around him to join him on his journey.
Born in New York in 1931, Melle was abandoned by his parents at age 2 and was raised by a family friend. He began composing and painting as a child, won awards, and began gigging in Greenwich Village on saxophone at age 15. At age 16, Melle lied about his age to enlist in the Marines and spent some of his service time in California. Upon his discharge and return to New Jersey two years later, Melle played jazz nightly in New York, often with organist Freddie Roach and pianist Joe Manning.
In 1952, Melle met Blue Note founder Alfred Lion [pictured, with Rudy Van Gelder, left], who signed him to a one-year contract that was extended repeatedly for five years. Melle referred to himself as a "jazz chemist" who routinely tried new approaches to the music, never hesitating to rush after possibilities. As a result, he was first to perform electronic music at the 1968 Monterey Jazz Festival, first to compose an electronic film score for the Andromeda Strain (1971), first to compose an electronic TV score for Rod Serling's Night Gallery (1970-71) and was one of the first to record an all-electronic jazz album, TOME VI, for Verve (1968).
Stylistically, Melle's 1950s playing on the baritone sax shares stylistic similarities with Gerry Mulligan's swinging, linear sound. But Melle tended to loiter in the instrument's middle register and was more at home on melody-less original compositions than jazz standards. Melle's works had a West Coast feel but with a more introspective and restless East Coast finish. In some cases, his pieces sounded like Capitol's "Birth of the Cool" singles played backward.
Melle's jazz recordings from the 1950s can be divided neatly into two distinct periods: 1952-56 for Blue Note and 1956-57 for Prestige.
On the Blue Note sessions, you hear Melle's development from early space-age modernist on tracks such as Four Moon, Venus and The Gears on New Faces, New Sounds to more straight-up linear jazz like Timepiece and The Nearness of You on Quintet, Vol. 2. His Blue Note recordings featured trombonist Eddie Bert, drummer Max Roach, bassist Oscar Pettiford, guitarist Tal Farlow and trombonist Urbie Green. Among my favorites are the albums he made with little-known guitarist Lou Mecca—for The Gil Melle Quartet Featuring Lou Mecca and Five Impressions of Color.
Starting in 1956, Melle recorded three 10-inch LPs for Prestige as well as three tracks for a12-inch Prestige LP that was never completed. On these sessions, Melle explored new atonal approaches that attracted top jazz artists of the day, including trumpeters Art Farmer and Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Hal McKusick, vibraphonist Teddy Charles and others. Particularly fascinating was the album Gil's Guests, which included Block Island and Genghis.
After his Prestige sessions, Melle moved to Los Angeles and in the 1960s composed extensively for television and the movies, settling in Malibu. Melle recorded from time to time but focused intensively on his hobbies—cars, planes and microscopes. Melle died in 2004 of a heart attack.
"I only knew Gil on those dates and had great respect for his choice of musicians. He knew what he wanted and the sound he preferred. The chord changes were not easy to maneuver through smoothly, although we all managed to tell our stories on our instruments anyway.
"Gil had his own unique way of orchestrating, and, later I could see why he was successful writing for films with space-age, far out themes. I know little of his background or influences, although I'm sure he was aware of Pres [Lester Young], Basie, Duke, Bird, Monk, Dizzy and, most likely some modern classical composers. His sidekick was Joe Cinderella, a quiet, mild-mannered guitarist with good capabilities.
"A lot of the credit for those sides should go to Rudy Van Gelder and his living room studio out in New Jersey where we recorded for Prestige in the early days. Rudy was one of the best sound people I ever worked with. Of course, the musicians were into doing their best as well. It was hard to beat the combo. [Photo of Rudy Van Gelder by Hank O'Neal]
"Gil was nice to work with, highly respectful and sure of what he wanted, including each player's input and where you were on your own. To his credit, he brought in the musicians for the dates, some of the best in the field, who he knew could do the most with his slant on music."
During a five-hour dinner last week with director Raymond De Felitta (City Island) [pictured], we talked quite a bit about Melle. Raymond grew up near Melle's Malibu home and often spent time chatting with his eccentric and creative neighbor:
music, sports cars, synthesizers, art, microscopes and other neat things. Gil said: 'When I was younger I used to hear older people talking about all the things they wished they'd done with their lives. I decided that would never be me.' "
JazzWax tracks: Gil Melle's Blue Note sessions were gathered recently on a two-CD set called Gil Melle: The Complete Blue Note Fifties Sessions. Unfortunately, the set is out of print but available here for $47. It also turns up on eBay from time to time. The Prestige sessions are still in print and available on a two-CD set called Gil Melle Quartet: Complete Prestige Recordings. You'll find it here.
JazzWax trivia. Gil Melle introduced Rudy Van Gelder to Alfred Lion, and Melle's first album (Blue Note 5020) [pictured], marked the start of Van Gelder's relationship with the label. The dramatic photo at the top of this post for the 10-inch LP Gil Melle Quartet Featuring Lou Mecca was taken by Bill Hughes during a Christmas concert at Town Hall in 1954.
JazzWax clip: Here's a taste of Gil Melle during his Prestige period, with Ballet Time from Primitive Modern (1956), featuring Melle on baritone sax, Joe Cinderella on guitar, Bill Phipps on bass and Ed Thigpen on drums...