Mike Melvoin, John Scofield
January 1, 1970Two jazz pieces for the Globe this week: a profile of an L.A. studio musician who is returning to playing jazz after playing on records with everyone from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys, from Barbra Streisand to the Patridge Family; and an overnight review of John Scofield's trio performance at the Regattabar.
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Session man Melvoin takes center stage
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | June 18, 2004
Chances are you've never heard of the master Los Angeles studio musician Mike Melvoin. But chances are virtually nil that you've never heard him play keyboards, which he's done with everyone from Frank Sinatra to John Lennon to the Beach Boys.
Melvoin's name could get a lot more familiar, too. He has put out a couple of very solid CDs under his own name in recent years and is now on an East Coast tour in support of last year's "It's Always You" that will bring him to Scullers Wednesday. That disc — on which Melvoin is joined by great alto saxophonist Phil Woods and Woods's quintet sidemen bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin — earned the pianist a Grammy nomination for best jazz instrumental solo.
At first glance, this jazz combo stuff appears a new thing for Melvoin, 67, who for many years toiled in relative anonymity as one of the preeminent studio musicians in LA. But it's really a joyful return to an old love he set aside nearly 40 years ago.
"There was a turning point many years ago," Melvoin said by phone en route to Dartmouth College, his alma mater, where he had a pair of reunion gigs with some old college buddies earlier this week.
"I had just finished music-directing [jazz singer] Joe Williams, and I had my choice between going out on the road with Joe or taking over the Andy Williams musical directorship for [pianist-arranger-composer] Dave Grusin. I had a family, and I decided that staying in Los Angeles with that kind of a job was probably a better call."
The Williams gig fell through, and Melvoin began working with Terry Gibbs and Herb Ellis in the house band of a show hosted by Regis Philbin in 1964. "Almost every major artist came through and made an appearance on that show," Melvoin recalls, "and they liked how I played, and so they started inviting me to play on their records."
From there, Melvoin's resume becomes almost comically broad, as if he were some sort of musical Zelig or Forrest Gump. He and Goodwin backed Tom Waits on "Nighthawks at the Diner." He played piano on the Jackson 5's "ABC," Helen Reddy's "I Am Woman," John Lennon's "Stand By Me," Barbra Streisand's "Evergreen," and the soundtracks of "Rocky" and "Rocky III." That's him, too, playing synthesizer on "We Are the World," and yet again — playing Hammond B3 organ — on Frank Sinatra's "That's Life" and the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds" and "Good Vibrations."
"It was art music," he says of the "Pet Sounds" sessions. "I mean, the information was conveyed in a sort of mysterious way. It wasn't like, walk in and there was this intricate music written out on a page. It was kind of talked through. But it was remarkable music, and we knew when we were doing this that this was unusual. We had no idea that it would have the commercial traction or the long life that it had, but there's no way you could play 'God Only Knows' or 'Caroline, No' and not know that this is extraordinarily beautiful music."
Melvoin has surprisingly fond memories, too, of arranging every Partridge Family album cranked out during the 1970-1974 run of the hit TV show of the same name.
"As arranger," Melvoin says, "I was doing everything I could to be responsible musically, because I knew we had the children's aesthetic in our hands. We could betray that and give them low-calorie, low-nutrition stuff, or we could make sure that people played in tune, that they played in time, that the changes were right. I made hidden references to Brahms in the string charts. Obviously, the producer didn't know that was going on, but I did it anyway."
Melvoin had three kids of his own by that time, kids who grew up to be talented musicians themselves. Daughter Wendy Melvoin toured with Prince and the Revolution, made subsequent albums as half of Wendy & Lisa, and now writes film and TV scores. Her twin sister, Susannah, is a singer-songwriter. And Melvoin's late son, Jonathan, played keyboards with the Smashing Pumpkins.
While Melvoin played rock and pop all those years, his drummer Goodwin followed the opposite career trajectory. He played in assorted trios with Melvoin in LA throughout the '60s, but moved to New York in 1969 to join Gary Burton's band. Goodwin did, however, get together to jam with Melvoin regularly during the next 35 years.
"He's got this great feeling for the blues," Goodwin says of Melvoin. "Everybody plays the blues, everybody plays it different, and Mike's got his genuine voice in his playing."
At Scullers, Melvoin, Goodwin, and Gilmore will be highlighting the mix of standards and Melvoin originals on "It's Always You."
"Resuming my original identity as a jazz player has been ramping up," Melvoin says. "It's getting better and better, and I must tell you, I absolutely love this trend line. The more I do this, the more I love it."
The Mike Melvoin Trio performs at Scullers Wednesday at 8 and 10 p.m. Tickets $14. Call 617-562-4111.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company
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Scofield Trio bebops with the best
By Bill Beuttler, Globe Correspondent | June 15, 2004
CAMBRIDGE — Six months ago, guitarist John Scofield took longtime associates Steve Swallow and Bill Stewart into New York's Blue Note jazz club to cut a live trio CD, inspired by classic dates led by Bill Evans, Sonny Rollins, and Jim Hall.
The resultant CD, "EnRoute," came out recently, displaying Scofield at his straight-ahead, bebop best. Last night Scofield and his trio gave Regattabar patrons a taste of the same.
They led off with "How Deep," Swallow walking his electric bass so it sounded like an upright, Stewart flicking out smart accents as he'd do all night on drums, Scofield and Swallow each taking lovingly constructed solos, and the three of them sounding just as tight together as can be.
Next up was "Toogs," from the CD, which Scofield confessed to having named for his two dogs. The tune started out slowly but got frisky, Scofield and Stewart refusing to let sleeping dogs lie. They kicked up the energy level while Swallow provided a steady bottom beneath them, then slowed things back down at the end. Silly name aside, the pair of pooches inspired a nice little romp by the musicians.
Scofield played an unaccompanied intro to lead off the untitled piece that came next, and Swallow followed the leader's solo with an especially lyrical one of his own, showing why his instrument is also called bass guitar. Then came the set's highlight: Scofield's exquisitely constructed solo on the Burt Bacharach/Hal David ballad "Alfie." Stewart backed him on this one with brushes, and Swallow's bass was also perfectly in synch.
The pace picked back up again with Swallow's very uptempo bebop romp "Name That Tune," which the bassist built upon the changes of the Duke Ellington classic "Perdido." The next tune was also from the new CD and also involved writing over an existing piece, in this case Scofield creating "Over Big Top" from his own "Big Top" from the 1995 CD "Groove Elation." This one, with Scofield's use of electronic effects and the funk-inflected melody, conjured up the guitarist's days with Miles Davis.
Scofield paused to thank outgoing Regattabar booker Fenton Hollander for "a great run" before stepping back pre-bebop for a slow rendition of Louis Armstrong's "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" Swallow followed Scofield's solo with a lovely understated one of his own, then Scofield picked up the melody again and had some harmonic fun with it before closing the set.
As an encore, the trio returned to bebop for the tune that opens its CD: Denzil Best's "Wee."
"Wee" indeed. Scofield's new trio is a worthy successor to the ones that inspired it.
© Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company