Mike Melito. So few hard bop albums today from up-and-coming jazz artists capture the true flavor of this mid-1950s genre. Hard bop isn’t exclusively about blowing. It’s a mix of instrument textures, earthy tones and edge, which many musicians somehow miss. So it was with great pleasure last week when I put on drummer Mike Melito’s new album, In the Tradition.
What makes this hard-bop album superb are the players and song choices. Which doesn’t surprise me too much, considering Melito credits tenor saxophonist Joe Romano with personally helping to shape his approach. Romano was a mainstay in the post-1958 bands of Woody Herman, Buddy Rich, Louie Bellson, and others. Taste tends to be taught and learned.
Joining Melito are Grant Stewart [pictured] on tenor sax, John Swana on trumpet, Paul Hofmann on piano, Neal Miner on bass and Rob Sneider on guitar. I’ve written about Grant in the past, and on this disc, he continues to be among the leading contemporary voices on the instrument. Grant here displays a wonderful sense of jazz history in his playing and solos. Through enormous sensitivity, he modernizes classics without damaging the brickwork. Grant also knows that for a hard bop date, you have to farm the saxophone’s lower register, and he does so fearlessly. Swana [pictured], for his part, has a terrific rapid-fire technique on the trumpet that complements Grant’s tone and attack beautifully. Though this CD was recorded earlier this year, it sounds 50 years old, which is exactly how a hard bop album should feel.
The opening track, Junka, says it all. Only someone intimately familiar with hard bop would pick this offbeat Sonny Clark [pictured] composition, and the group executes perfectly. Also included on the album is The Dolphin, a rich showcase for Grant; Barry Harris’ Bish Bash Bosh; Hank Mobley’s Hankerin’ and Tadd Dameron’s Good Bait. And that’s just part of the CD’s tracklist.
What’s interesting about the album is that drummer Melito [pictured] delivers the beat with stick-work that smartly allows the drumheads to be heard, which is rare today. Drums actually have a sound, and it takes a sensitive drummer to purposefully tease out the “skin” quality of the instrument. That requires a mind-shift by the artist from “Listen to me, I’m the man” to a more sensitive “I want to tell the listener something.” As a result, I actually found myself paying attention and enjoying Melito’s figures behind Grant and Swana. On piano, Hofmann’s lines are delicate and knowing, allowing for space and message, while bassist Miner and guitarist Sneider keep things interesting. Pay particular attention to Sneider’s solo on The Dolphin.