Organist Melvin Rhyne—who died of lung cancer on March 5 at age 76 in his hometown of Indianapolis—is perhaps best known for the four spectacular Riverside albums he recorded with Wes Montgomery between 1960 and 1963. Thanks to Resonance Records, we also have recordings with Rhyne and Montgomery from Indianapolis circa 1957 or '58—just before producer Orrin Keepnews lured Montgomery to Riverside and the road. [Photo above by Mark Sheldon]
Upon a relisten to the Riverside material, it's hard to imagine why every single Montgomery album for the label wasn't recorded with Rhyne. His playing and ideas are so rich and engaging. Perhaps the reason had something to do with his standout, pianistic style on the organ that tended to put him on par with Montgomery rather than merely providing support. Or perhaps Orrin's goal was to give Montgomery as much diversity and exposure to headliners as possible to amp album status and sales.
The four albums Rhyne made with Montgomery are among the finest pure jazz guitar-organ-drums albums recorded. They were The Wes Montgomery Trio (1959), Boss Guitar (1963), Portrait of Wes (1963) and Guitar on the Go (1963). All feature a highly animated Montgomery, with Rhyne stoking the groove, challenging and motivating Montgomery's warm, swinging picking.
When Riverside went belly-up in 1964, Montgomery was signed to Verve and Rhyne went home to Indianapolis. He moved to Madison, Wisc., in 1969, gigging at clubs near the university there before relocating to Milwaukee in 1973.
According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Rhyne routinely played well-known Milwaukee clubs—including Brother's Lounge (later the Jazz Oasis), The Main Event, the Red Mill East and jazz lounges in the downtown hotels. He also taught privately and was a musician-in-residence at Malcolm X Academy in 1995. The newspaper also reports that Rhyne was a quiet guy who didn't talk much about what he had done or what he was up to.
Rhyne recorded sporadically up until 2008 and performed in concert until recently. Clearly, he should have been recorded much more extensively, particularly in the '60s. Part of the problem of course was the flood of organists on the scene at the time—including Jack McDuff, Jimmy McGriff, Jimmy Smith and many more. This, at a time when there was only so much demand for the sound, and rock and Motown were dominating radio and revenue.
But if you listen only to Rhyne's recordings with Montgomery, you'll hear that his legacy was assured from the start. On The Wes Montgomery Trio, you have a swinging session with gorgeous interplay between Rhyne and Montgomery, particularly on Missile Blues, Too Late Now and Ecaroh.
Boss Guitar was more playful, with Rhyne providing a broader, orchestral backdrop, especially on The Days of Wine and Roses and For Heaven's Sake. Bossa nova had arrived by 1963, and the fizzy, churning rhythm is employed deftly on Canadian Sunset. But there also are plenty of tightly rendered Rhyne solos here as well on tracks like Dearly Beloved and The Trick Bag.
The album with the most percussive edge is Portrait of Wes, which preceded Guitar on the Go by just over a month. Hard-edged tracks include Lolita, Moanin' and Dangerous. The albums would be Montgomery's last for Riverside, leaving us with too-few examples of Rhyne at his prettiest and most provocative.
JazzWax clips: Dig Melvin Rhyne's opening chords behind Wes Montgomery in 1959 on 'Round Midnight...
Here's The Trick Bag from 1963...
And here's Lolita from 1963...