Tuesday, August 7, 2018

Mel Rhyne - A Different Approach to Jazz organ

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Rhyne immediately sounds different from the prevailing Jimmy Smith school of organ players. Instead of swirling, bluesy chords, he favors sharp, almost staccato figures and lyrical single-note runs that often don’t go quite where expected. … He has a way of voicing a line that makes you think of the old compliment about ‘making the organ speak ….’”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“Mel Rhyne is certainly among the best Jazz organists. He has fluent ideas, good time, and a clean, light touch. In his hands, the controversial instrument never becomes overbearing or cloying.”
Dan Morgenstern, Director, Institute for Jazz Studies, Rutgers University

"Melvin's very unique because he's got his own thing. He really doesn't play typical organ. The organ just happens to be his instrument but he doesn't use it in the common way. Like any jazz player, he plays his lines, which are really subtle and personal. It's not like he's pulling out all the stops and doing the organ thing. He's unique, like a Hank Jones of the organ, a really subtle player."
- Guitarist, Peter Bernstein

"Melvin's got great time. I noticed that the first time I played with him, that his time does not move. Not only that, his choice of bass notes is always right. In fact, just his choice of notes period, the way he constructs his lines. There's nobody around playing organ like that. He's playing just as good as he did or better than on those classic Wes Montgomery sides. It's a pleasure to play with him because his time is so steady, which is something that doesn't happen all the time and that can be very hard on the drummer. But let me tell you, it's a gas to play with Melvin Rhyne."
- Drummer, Kenny Washington

A recent listening to tunes from Wes Montgomery's best selling Verve LPs that featured on a playlist from a digital music service brought back memories of when I first heard Wes on his guitar-organ-drums trio recordings for Orrin Keepnews' Riverside label.

The music on these albums was recorded in April, October and November of 1963 and Orrin issued them on three, separate LPs. All have subsequently been reissued as Original Jazz Classic CDs: Wes Montgomery: Boss Guitar [OJCCD-261-2], Portrait of Wes: The Wes Montgomery Trio [OJCCD-144-2], and Guitar on the Go: The Wes Montgomery Trio [OJCCD-489-2].

[We will have more about Orrin's time with Wes  at Riverside and how all of that came about in a following piece drawn from his autobiographical The View From Within: Jazz Writings 1948-1987.]

Aside from being blown away by Wes' unique approach to Jazz guitar, I was very impressed by Melvin Rhyne, the Hammond B-3 Organ player who appeared on all three of Wes' Riverside discs and whose style of playing the instrument was quite unlike Jimmy Smith's hard charging and high energy way of dealing with the "axe." [Jimmy was such a force of nature on the Hammond that Miles Davis upon first hearing and seeing him perform in person labeled him "the 8th Wonder of the World."]

By contrast, Mel played the Hammond B-3 Organ as though it were a piano and achieved orchestral effects through the use of the keyboard and not by employing the stops and other devices that can so abruptly [and, at times, obnoxiously] alter the sound of the instrument.

Sadly, for Orrin and Jazz lovers everywhere, Riverside was about to descend into bankruptcy in the following year, but luckily for Wes, producer Creed Taylor brought him to Verve and the commercial success that followed.

Somewhat ironically, just as Wes' star was rising, after Mel made the Riverside LPs with him, he retired to the relative obscurity of the Jazz scene in his native Indianapolis and later moved to MilwaukeeWI where he had a prosperous career and where he was rediscovered in the 1990s by Gerry Teekens at Criss Cross Records.

Mel began making a series of recordings for Gerry Teekens' Criss Cross label right up until his death in 2013. On many of these discs, Mel resurrected the guitar-organ-trio format from his days with Wes using Peter Bernstein on guitar and Kenny Washington on drums.

All you need to know about the “disappearance” and reappearance of Mel is contained in the following insert notes by Lora Rosner from Mel Rhyne’s first Criss Cross CD which is appropriately named Melvin Rhyne: The Legend [Criss Cross Jazz 1059].

You can locate more about Mel’s Criss Cross Recordings by going here.

Thanks to "The Age of YouTube" many of Mel's Criss Cross CDs are available in their entirety and we've placed links to some of them at the conclusion of this piece.

© -Lara Rosner/Criss Cross Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

"Legend" is derived from the Latin verb "legere", meaning "to collect, gather or read" and the word has come to mean "things to be read or collections of stories about notable figures"; legends are both such people and the lore that surrounds them. When a musician makes a historic contribution or is part of a historically significant group, an undying interest in the personality and the documents he has left behind, combined with a lack of current information will often engender tales of his recent activities and past achievements which are created to satisfy and feed the public's curiosity and hunger for such news. While Mel Rhyne is too modest to feel comfortable being called a legend (Teekens' title), the legend of his whereabouts and his slim recorded output from 30 years ago are now happily supplemented and brought up-to-date with fresh recordings by this brilliant, original voice on the organ and master of his instrument at the peak of his powers.

Mel Rhyne (born 10/12/36) is best known as the lyrical, inventive, understated organist and longtime associate of Wes Montgomery who complemented the guitarist so beautifully on four of his Riverside LPs, including his first and last for the label: Wes Montgomery Trio; Boss Guitar; Portrait for Wes; Guitar on the Go. Wes' Riverside recordings document the period of his first maturity and the core of his purest, most inspired, small group playing (10-9-63). Wes and Rhyne both played with great imagination and a certain disregard for convention; they also shared great respect for one another. Wes loved his "piano player's touch." Mel has a good left hand from learning boogie woogie from his father as a child, which made playing basslines easier when he began playing organ in the mid-50's in order to get more work as a sideman.

One of the first jobs he did on organ was with Roland Kirk, another highly original, maverick performer grounded in the roots of jazz and the blues. While he later became a fan of the John Coltrane Quartet with McCoy Tyner, a devotee of Red Garland and a student of great organists like Milt Buckner, Jimmy Smith, Wild Bill Davis and Jackie Davis, his earliest musical education was based on listening to Nat Cole, Art Tatum, Oscar Peterson and Erroll Garner records.

People interested in jazz history know that Chicago had DuSable High School, Detroit had Case and Sam Brown taught at Jefferson High in south Los Angeles. Russell Brown was the open-minded band director and free spirit at Crispus Attucks, the only high school in Indianapolis' black neighborhood, who encouraged the jazz activity and featured the talents of many famous Indianapolites: J.J. Johnson; Slide Hampton; Leroy Vinnegar; Larry Ridley; Buddy Montgomery; Mel Rhyne; Freddie Hubbard; Virgil Jones; Ray Appleton - to name a few. Many young musicians took night school classes at the city's numerous clubs and after-hours joints such as the Turf Bar, the Hub-Bub, the 19th Hole, the 440 Club and of course the Ebony Missile Room where Wes Montgomery often held forth, drawing young talent and music lovers to him like a magnet.

From 1959-64 Rhyne played and toured with the guitarist except when Wes had the chance to work with his brothers as part of the Mastersounds. The difficulty of transporting an organ contributed to the group's demise but the final deathblow came when Riverside went into receivership and Creed Taylor, Wes' new manager, led him off into a world of large orchestras and more commercial music where Rhyne would have felt superfluous and out-of-place.

In 1969 Rhyne moved to Madison, Wise, to work with guitarist John Shacklett and his brother Ron Rhyne on drums and also appeared on Buddy Montgomery's This Rather than That (Impulse). Early in his career, Mel had backed great acts like T-Bone Walker, B.B. King, the Four Tops, Aretha Franklin and Arthur Prysock, but after working with Wes he only wanted to play jazz. Buddy Montgomery persuaded him to move to Milwaukee in 1973, a town with enough jazz activity at the time to keep him working and stimulated. Last year Herb Ellis asked him to play the B-3 on Roll Call (Justice) and a few months ago Milwaukee native, trumpeter Brian Lynch who has known Mel since 1974, asked the organist to appear on his third CD for Criss Cross.

A few weeks before his record date Lynch heard guitarist Peter Bernstein at the Village Gate and was so taken with his playing that he asked him to be on the date as well. Bernstein predictably gains the respect of every great musician he works with; Jimmy Cobb first asked Peter to work with him in April '89 when he was all of 21 and the guitarist recently led his own quartet featuring Cobb for a standing-room-only week at the Village Gate. Lou Donaldson thought he was listening to a Grant Green record the first time he heard Peter play, subsequently featured him on his CD, Play the Right Thing (Fantasy). Peter's playing incorporates the best qualities of Wes Montgomery and Grant Green. He's an expressive soloist whose horn-inspired lines draw much of their power, beauty and effectiveness from his soulful time.

Criss Cross producer Gerry Teekens was so pleased with the results of Lynch's date that he asked Rhyne to do an impromptu trio recording the next day and Mel was quite happy to have Bernstein and young veteran Kenny Washington with him again in the studio. Although Organ-izing (Jazzland) was issued under Rhyne's name in order to capitalize on the organ fad of the time, the LP (1960) was a thrown-together session of four blues featuring horns, organ, piano and bass which limited his role as an organist; he had no idea he was the leader of the date. It seems hard to believe but The Legend is Melvin Rhyne's first recording as a leader; the world has waited long enough and so has Rhyne. His stunningly original ideas, impeccable taste and time, humor and unique sound make this CD special from its opening moments.

After so many years of imposed silence Rhyne bursts onto CD with a performance of Eddie "Lockjaw" DavisLicks A-Plenty which conveys his youthful exuberance and enthusiasm and sheer delight in making music. While the title is an apt description of the head, a good name for the solos (especially Rhyne's) might be "Expect the Unexpected." The rhythmic shapes of his lines are irregular and unusual and have an arresting vocal quality. He plays with his audience setting up riffs which he deconstructs with subtle amendments, sly timing or the big sound of surprise when he pulls out a few more stops during a shout chorus. A drummer of Kenny Washington's caliber is needed to keep up with the organist's utterances. Bernstein can't help but respond to Rhyne and his solo reflects some of Mel's rhythmic originality. In his discreet comping Pete defers to Mel the way Mel deferred to Wes. The atmospheric Serenata is played much more slowly than usual and shows off Bernstein's beautiful sound and feeling for melody. He learned the tune in the studio without music. Mel told me that he thought Peter did a marvelous job; he was particularly happy with the trio's pleasing contrast of sound.

Dig the relaxed feeling and great solos on Savoy which is surely one of the highlights of the session. Mel digs in with a strong, dense sound and makes a blistering statement on The Trick Bag. Bernstein is an extension of Rhyne's lyricism and taste on a soulful Old Folks (gorgeous intro). Next Time You See Me was a 1958 hit for Frankie Lymon and many singers have done it since. Rhyne phrases the melody the way a vocalist would. True to his bebop roots and his own inner voice, Rhyne reinterprets Groovin' High at a brisk pace. Contributions from guests Brian Lynch and Don Braden brought the session to a close.

Melvin hopes to record again in the near future which will no doubt be eagerly anticipated. He is very happy with everyone's efforts and the music on The Legend. I'm sure all you listeners will agree with me -- it's been worth the wait!

Thanks are due to Ted Dunbar and Prof. David Baker for their invaluable insights on the Indianapolis scene. Enjoy!

Lora Rosner Jackson Heights, NY March 1992”