Gil Mellé: Instrumental Inventions
New Jersey saxman Gil Mellé had fallen hard for jazz as a teen, even going so far as to walk the bar for tips in local clubs. But jazz alone wasn’t nearly enough to content Mellé’s multifaceted creative mind. For some, it’s enough to devote a lifetime to an instrument, but Mellé also painted, drew and dreamed of attending the local tech and becoming an engineer.
Mellé wouldn’t attend the science school (he couldn’t afford it), and he didn’t end up in art school, or music school even. Instead, he signed with Blue Note before his 20th birthday. The saxophonist’s interests in the visual arts and science did not end, however; instead he constantly mingled them with music. Arts and science offered a constantly shifting influence on Mellé’s thinking and colored every project he turned out, from designing his own record covers to making Tome VI (Verve, 1967), which he claims is the first jazz recording to feature passages made completely from electronically generated sound.
Gil Mellé was born in New Jersey in 1931. He met his father only once, and when Mellé turned two, his mother abandoned him as well. They didn’t have contact again until Mellé was 32 when his mother told him that Howard Hall, his biological father, was the first person to play Dracula in a stage production; Bela Lugosi was his understudy. Hall’s love of scotch trumped his career, however, and he had to give up his role to Lugosi; the rest is history.
Mellé found New Jersey hard, sometimes violent and not particularly cultured. Still, a quick trip across the river, and he could be standing in the New York City of Lester Young, Stan Getz and Charlie Parker. As he did with so many other musicians, Ellington first turned Mellé’s ear. The saxophonist would spend nearly every spare quarter on Ellington 78s, with exceptions made for Stan Kenton and, eventually, Thelonious Monk. Before long, Mellé was playing the tenor, transcribing music and doing a little composing. Most of the kids in Mellé’s neighborhood were into rhythm and blues, but a small circle of older kids really loved jazz. Mellé’s early schooling came from them.
“Every day after school, I’d just grab my horn, go over and pick everybody’s brains—learning chords and intervallic relationships,” Mellé says. “I was lucky.
I learned the most I ever learned in my life from those kids, just talking to them, hanging with them, playing with them. And from the time I started playing,
I started writing music. I started composing and also transcribing the Monk stuff. I did an arrangement of ‘Well You Needn’t’ when I was about 14. My composition ‘The Gears,’ which is on the first Blue Note album, I did that when I was 14. People just sort of said, ‘Wow, why don’t you put a group together?’”
Mellé did put a group together and wrote a few more tunes, which was enough to convince a classmate, Bernie Levine, of two things: he needed to be Mellé’s manager, and he needed to get Mellé recorded. As Mellé remembers it, Levine instructed him to write a few more charts, and then they could start a record company. “This was not in the days of CD burners,” Mellé says. “To start a record company in 1950, I mean, it was impossible. You had to go into the studio, you had to pay the musicians, and it cost money to press the records. But this guy really had ambition.”
The saxophonist’s neophyte manager did find a source of income: A blue-collar man who had been making a living dispensing rubber bands and paperclips on Wall St. came upon a sizable inheritance and then came upon the fast-talking Levine, who convinced him to give cash to record and press an album. Eventually, Mellé succumbed to his friend’s pressure and recorded a few sides, which the boys distributed to metropolitan radio stations. From there it all blew up.
“The record came out, and it was played on every station on the Eastern Seaboard,” Mellé says. “There wasn’t a night when Symphony Sid wouldn’t play the record twice during a show—either ‘The Gears’ or ‘Four Moons.’ But nobody could buy the record because we had no distribution. I thought I may never have another chance at this, so I asked [Levine], ‘Why don’t you cut a deal with a record company who could handle this thing?’ He refused. So I took it upon myself to take the masters around.”
After Mellé’s first stop, Roost Records, treated the kid only half-seriously, the saxophonist reconsidered his strategy and decided to start at the top: Blue Note. “I took the crosstown shuttle to Lexington Avenue and walked up, unannounced. There was Alfred [Lion] behind the desk with his glasses on—Frank [Wolff] standing in the corner filing something. It was just the two of them. I told them who I was and Alfred looked up and said [here Mellé breaks out his best German accent], ‘I know who you are. Ja, Gil Mellé. Sit down.’ In 15 minutes we had a deal. He signed me up for a record a year for five years.” Mellé was the first Caucasian to sign with Blue Note.
Even though the teenage Mellé was relatively new to jazz, his signature sound for the decade quickly fell into place. “When I started recording for Blue Note, I was just trying to get my sea legs,” Mellé says. “And I was thinking conventionally—bass, piano drums as a rhythm section. When
I did the other four sides, I had this idea that the guitar could do the job a piano could: It could give support, but it was also a serious front-line instrument. When a guitar plays a single line, it could play harmony or unison lines with the sax. It would give you somewhat of an ensemble feel, and still keep the group down to a quartet, which gives you more intimacy and more intellectual interchange.
I dunno—I thought the guitar could work out. I didn’t know of any records that had been made with a guitar rhythm section.”
The guitar, handled on record by Lou Mecca, Tal Farlow and the underrated Joe Cinderella, paired with tenor or baritone sax and provided Mellé with his primary sound throughout the 1950s, even as he added other instruments, often lower-pitched horns, like trombones or tubas, that reinforced a dark, breathy sound.
To new ears, Mellé’s music released between 1952 and 1957—two 78s, four
10-inchers and the 12-inch LP Patterns in Jazz for Blue Note, all reissued on CD as The Complete Blue Note ’50s Sessions; three records for Prestige, Primitive Modern, Gil’s Guests and Quadrama—must sound thoroughly grounded in the cool school. Mellé played baritone with a graceful lightness and a vibratoless tone, and his music, even in driving moments, has a cool distance to it, not announcing itself in broad gestures but insinuating with peculiar details.
Mellé’s oddities begin with some of the very first songs he recorded. On “Four Moons”—one of a host of Mellé originals with astrology/astronomy titles that turn up on the Blue Note sides—Monica Dell adds a spacey, low-moan scat so bizarre that it seems to anticipate the intergalactic chants of Sun Ra. Mellé’s interest in classical composition—Bartók in particular—surfaced in 1955 with the complexly structured suite “Five Impressions of Color” (from the last Blue Note 10-inch) and the almost narrative “Ghengis” from Gil’s Guests (1956).
“I was into translating Bartók’s architectonic thinking into jazz,” Mellé says. “There are movements and sections that Bartók wrote that have a pulse like you wouldn’t believe. They really move. And I thought, ‘My God, if I can just rethink this and make it work within a jazz composition.”
The music Mellé made for Prestige is not only more rich, confidant and fully realized than his Blue Note work, it’s also more densely populated with unexpected twists and turns. The creative firecrackers threaded into the recordings give the music an almost casual air of the avant-garde. Consider, for example, “Ironworks” from Primitive Modern (1956): Ed Thigpen uses an unorthodox drum kit that is expanded to accommodate large pieces of piping, which gives him a machine-shop sound, and there’s a unexpected break in the tune where the whole band drops out save Cinderella, who emits a beam of abstract sound—a totally static moment and an early echo of Mellé’s future in electronic music.
“I wasn’t playing bebop,” Mellé says. “And for that matter, neither was Monk, neither was George Russell, neither was Teddy Charles, neither was Lennie Tristano. There were some of us who had a little more respect for Bird and Diz and Miles than to just imitate them—steal their lines—which is what everyone was doing. We just picked our own direction.”
By this time Mellé’s own directions were several. Alfred Lion liked Mellé’s artwork enough that he encouraged the saxophonist to design his own album covers from the start. “Alfred was like a second father to me. He took me to museums, the MOMA, the Guggenheim and all these places I had never been. We went to see a lot of foreign films. He gave me a peek over the pigsty, which is what Jersey was. That changed my life.”
Mellé also designed covers for Monk, Sonny Rollins, Miles Davis and Clifford Brown, among others. Original Mellé paintings were also beginning to find their way into New York art galleries.
At the same time he was starting to have success with his visual art, his increasingly idiosyncratic music was confusing and shrinking his audience. “Nobody knew what the hell I was doing,” Mellé says. Record sales continued to lag with each recording. Then Mellé did something that made things much, much worse. “That’s the point at which I got into electronic music. Then [my audience] really didn’t understand me. Electronic music in ’59? That wasn’t music.”
The world’s first synthesizer piqued Mellé’s interest, though he had no way to access it—so Mellé opted to build his own electronic instruments. Mellé hooked up with an engineer and amateur synthesizer builder for advice and blueprints. Using army-surplus equipment, Mellé built tiny electronic instruments (metal boxes with dials, wobbling needles and input/output jacks) with a Forbidden Planet look and sci-fi names to match (i.e., the Doomsday Machine). His Percussotron was one of the world’s first drum machines.
Mellé’s entry into electronic music signaled the beginning of the end of his active involvement on the national jazz scene. Lured west by the prospect of film scoring in the early 1960s, Mellé shifted his attention to composing and painting. He has subsequently scored more than 125 movies, including the sci-fi disaster film The Andromeda Strain. California, as it turned out, offered Mellé plenty of concert opportunities, for which Mellé formed the world’s first all-electric jazz band, the Electronauts, which played the 10th Monterey Jazz Festival. But by this time Mellé was without a record deal.
It wasn’t until 1967 and Tome VI that Mellé was able to present part of his electronic visions on disc, playing an early version of his titular sax synth with an acoustic quartet. The music is a huge departure from his Blue Note and Prestige days, and Mellé’s style had changed to show the influence of Coltrane-style modal music and free jazz. The departure leaves Mellé sounding less distinctive, and the music wouldn’t be particularly notable if not for the moments in each tune when the warbling, buzzing electronic soundscape bubbles up from nowhere and eclipses the quartet. Tome VI may have sounded bizarre and artificial in its time, but to anyone who’s listened to and enjoyed a Chicago Underground or Isotope 217 recording, this will sound like the missing link.
“Nobody understood what I was doing—especially with the electronic equipment,” Mellé says. “All the guys who knew me for years said, ‘Oh, Gil’s just going through a phase.’ I believed in it totally. I knew it had to be the music. It was coming.”
One more album sneaked out—1970’s Waterbirds (Nocturne)—but soundtracks were paying the bills, and visual arts had supplanted jazz to express Mellé’s creativity. (Mellé returned to Blue Note, but not jazz, in 1991 for the all-electronic Mindscapes.)
Today, Mellé focuses almost exclusively on his artwork, which he creates using a digital pen. For Mellé, an artist in a scientist’s body, modern technology is a near-constant thrill. Mellé insists that he still plays, but true to form, he’d rather talk about his new favorite gadget—a digital sax—than about the music he’s playing.
“It’s more difficult—it’s a very touchy thing,” Mellé says of this digital sax. “In aviation, they talk about how a Cessna is a very forgiving airplane, which means that if you make a mistake, the plane will wait a few seconds before it responds. But if you’re flying a biplane, and you move the stick 1/16 of an inch, precisely at that moment, the airplane tilts over. That’s the difference between a sax and a digital instrument. If you make a mistake on the saxophone, it’ll cover you. When you play a digital instrument, and your fingers don’t come down together, you get a glitch. It just shouts out: This guy’s screwing up. But, my God, the response on that thing. It’s the difference between a truck and a sports car. I love it. I’m sold.”
To see some of Mellé’s artwork, including his Blue Note LP cover designs, log on to gilmelle.com.