I met Mel Ellison in 1979. I was 19 and still living in Baltimore and Mel came through town with trumpeter Ted Curson's band to play for a few nights at "The Bandstand", a jazz club in Fells Point. It was a festival of sorts and saxophonists Sonny Stitt and David Schnitter were also in town to play. In fact, I recall playing on one of the afternoon jams and Sonny and David walked in while I was playing and came right up to the stage in front of me. It was a little nerve-racking but I think Sonny said something complimentary which made me feel good. That night Ted Curson's band played. They sounded great. Mel played saxophones, Armen Donelian was on piano, Ratzo Harris on bass, Tom Rainey played drums and Montego Joe was on percussion. At that time the prevailing trend on saxophone was toward a brighter more cutting sound. But Mel had a distinctively full dark sound and an intervallic melodic style that was his own. I was so knocked out I asked him for a lesson. It was a catalyzing experience which I still remember quite clearly.
About a month later I had a free weekend and decided to visit NYC for the first time. I looked up Mel who was living in midtown on 46th street. A bed, a TV, a stereo, his horns and a big cappuccino maker were all that was in the room. He had his horns out and was practicing. We chatted for awhile and then he played me a recording of a group that he had. I remember thinking that I had never heard anything quite like it. Mel explained how he had done every kind of gig one could do as a saxophone player and now he wanted to simply play the music he loved. So he drove a limo in order to make some money while hitting the NYC jazz scene. He was the first musician I had met who was actually living the life, doing what I aspired to do. I remember pulling my horn out (without being asked) and trying to get him to play with me. I only played a phrase or two, but just being in the same room with him made me play better than I had ever played before. That night he had a gig with Jackie Byard's Apollo Stompers and invited me along.
It wasn't until 1983 that I moved to NYC. By that time Mel had left town and gone back to the Bay Area. I would ask around and those who remembered spoke very highly of him. But he had otherwise vanished from the scene. Finally, sometime in the mid '90s I tracked Mel down on a trip out west . We spoke on the phone and met briefly at one of my gigs. Mel explained that he had since been in and out of music over the years due to his feelings about the music business in general and how he wanted to live his life. We stayed in touch over the years and I asked him if he would send me any recordings of himself made from his time in NYC as commercial recordings were few.
One very nice session is available though. It's by bassist Saheb Sarbib from 1980 entitled "Seasons" (on the Soul Note label). Mark Whitecage plays alto and Paul Motion is on drums. It's a great indication of Mel's sound and approach at that time. You can get it on iTunes
I'm still trying to track down the recordings of those gigs in Baltimore with Ted Curson. I pretty sure they exist.
Mel recently informed me that he was coming to town for a visit. In fact, it would be Mel's first time back in NYC since he left in the early 80's. Being an important musical figure in my development, I was thrilled to be able to organize a jam session inviting Ratzo Harris and Tom Rainey. And I don't think Mel had seen Ratzo or Tom since those early days. In spite of the fact that Mel does not play with the same regularity he did in his NYC days, his spirit and sound are quite intact. It was a real thrill to actually play together and renew the inspiration from those many years ago. Thanks Mel!
(photo: Mel, Tom, Ratzo, EE)