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Live Review: Mel Graves Tribute at SSU

Posted by: Gabe Meline on Nov 10, 2008 | Comments (1)

When I arrived at Warren Auditorium tonight, there were already more than 20 people standing in the hallway outside the theater, craning their necks to see through the doors. There were additional seats, full of people, placed behind the stage. There were speakers going out into the lobby, where even more people stood.

You shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.

It is unfortunate that one of the greatest listening experiences to be had in Sonoma County all year had to come with a tinge of sadness. Mel Graves, the great bassist and composer, died on Saturday of terminal cancer, just one day before the big farewell concert that he’d organized and looked forward to. The music heard tonight—presented by Mel’s alumni, close friends and colleagues—was so incredible, so blossoming and full of life. It was an utterly fitting tribute for a passionate, funny, smart, brilliant man.

I was lucky to be able to hang out with Mel a couple times in the last year. He was a no-nonsense soul who was at equal ease discussing the difference in the 1964 and 1965 versions of Charles Mingus’ “Meditations” as he was accepting life’s ultimate key change. The last time I stopped by his Petaluma home, his girlfriend Pam was taking care of him with what was obviously a great deal of love. He was surrounded by notes, preparing for this farewell concert, suggested by his friend Jessica Felix and which he himself titled, in pure Mel fashion, “Movin’ On.” He was at peace.

My only wish is that he could have seen the gales of love that were showered on him tonight. Hopefully he felt it.

Among the highlights: Denny Zeitlin, recalling the phone call he received in 1968 from a young Graves who said “I’ve just come out from the Midwest, and I love your stuff on Columbia, and I want to play with you.” (Graves and Zeitlin would go on to play together for 40 years.) Zeitlin sat down, chalked up his hands, and played a commanding, emotionally charged improvisation which led into “What Is This Thing Called Love” before it ended, hanging in air, unresolved.

Mel Martin, recalling the inconvenience of working so often with someone who shared his name. Both Mels eventually discovered that Martin’s Melvyn was spelled with a Y; Graves’ Melvin with an I. “He’d call me up, and say ‘Hey there, Y,’ and I’d say, Hey, I.’ I will miss that.” The band then kicked into “Flamenco Sketches,” and Martin played a razor-sharp cascading solo.

One of Graves’ specific requests for the night’s program was for Zeitlin and guest pianist Art Lande to sit together and play a four-hand piano duet, and he would have been bowled over at the results. Assuming the “missionary position” with crossed arms, the two oscillated from battling each other to cooperating on the keys in what was the night’s most freewheeling and humorous moment.

But most of all, every player on stage seemed to exhibit a certain extra empathy. There was a lot of listening going on between the players, and perhaps this was why they were so wonderful to listen to. During the final number, a solitary chorus of Gordon Jenkins’ beautiful ballad “Goodbye,” each member of the bandstand was united in the cause to properly bid farewell to their friend. The standing ovation from the full theater was overwhelming.

Aw, you shoulda seen it, Mel. You shoulda seen it.

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