Mike Melito: “To Swing Is The Thing” by David A. Orthmann

A sense of discovery, exhilaration, and depth are not qualities often induced by recent jazz recordings that showcase some of the once innovative, now commonplace styles from the mid-to-late twentieth century.

There is no shortage of less-than-stellar releases that land squarely inside the bop/hard bop continuum. One notable exception to the abundance of mere competence is the body of work of drummer Mike Melito.

Beginning in the late twentieth century, Melito has led several impressive recording dates utilizing his Rochester, NY area cohort and luminaries from the New York City and Philadelphia jazz scenes. His modus operandi is to employ smart arrangements of jazz compositions from the 1950s and ’60s, Great American Songbook tunes, as well as originals by the sidemen, and give everyone ample room to blow.

Melito’s records are noteworthy for their attention to detail, the willingness of band members to work together for a common cause, a refreshing lack of excess, and tempos that feel good and stay in the pocket. The wisdom and experience of the drummer and his sidemen are evident in every release.

Tenor saxophonist Grant Stewart, trumpeter/flugelhornist Joe Magnarelli, pianist Jeb Patton and bassist Neal Miner have all, at one time or another, made substantial contributions to Melito’s projects. Without exception, they are insightful, sophisticated ensemble players and soloists with stories to tell. Their presence and the record’s similarity in approach to previous releases begs the question: What is so special about To Swing Is The Thing?

The answer lies in Melito’s drumming. He has always been a selfless, prudent, orderly player, keeping time in ways that highlight his connection to Miner and other bassists and positioning accents and fills in an informed manner. It may not be the stuff that attracts a large fan base or puts him on the cover of jazz and drum magazines, but it gets the job done, and one suspects that Melito’s records would not be half as good with someone else on the drummer’s throne.

Throughout To Swing Is The Thing, Melito is more vigorous, often hitting harder and boldly inserting himself to a greater extent than usual. The results are exhilarating. He stays on top of the music but never gums up the works, takes attention away from the rest of the band, or moves the music in an untoward direction. His strokes speak out with absolute certainty and pinpoint precision. Punchy snare and bass drum combinations and trenchant fills make every twist and turn of the heads of “Big Red,” “A Bee Has Two Brains,” “Straight Street,” “Three For Carson,” and “Locke Bop” crackle with life.

To claim that Meilto is standing on the shoulders of the giants of modern jazz drumming contains more than a grain of truth, yet it does not do him justice. There is something genuinely personal in his drumming, a conviction engendered by the accumulation of experiences and choices made over decades and thousands of gigs. If you have not heard him, To Swing Is The Thing is a great place to start.

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