While it's an easy task to designate any number of Hammond B-3 organ players who have quickly fallen under the spell of innovator Jimmy Smith, it's not as simple to inventory the few individuals who've avoided Smith's overpowering influence to develop a sound and manner of their own. Melvin Rhyne is one who managed to carve a niche for himself during the '60s with a much lighter and less bombastic approach, around during the heydays as a member of Wes Montgomery's trio. His distinctive use of the organ's stops and settings and a bop-based style to improvising mark him as one of the true original voices on the instrument.

Lucky to be part of a healthy renaissance movement involving the classic sound of the B-3 and the type of funky fare that was prosperous and bountiful over three decades ago, Rhyne is currently taking advantage of the cyclical nature of fads and stylistic "ins" and "outs". Since the early'90s, this Indianapolis resident has made the most of a renewed interest in his particular brand of jazz organ. Added now to five previous Criss Cross dates as a leader, two as a co-leader with The Tenor Triangle and several sideman appearances for the label, Classmasters is Rhyne's latest offering and it serves as a tribute, in a way, to the young musicians on the date who continue to inspire him. "These guys are masters," says Rhyne, "and to me it's like going to heaven to get to work with them."

Over the course of his many Criss Cross dates, beginning with 1992's The Legend (Criss Cross 1059), Rhyne has developed quite a simpatico relationship with guitarist Peter Bernstein and drummer Kenny Washington. The three function like an integrated machine, anticipating and feeding lines off of each other with the refinement of well-trained athletes. Much has already been written regarding Peter Bernstein's lissome guitar work, a fact that is not surprising considering that he appears on many jazz releases each year. His Grant Green-inspired tone fits so well with the organ trio format and his single-note runs are so sensible and tuneful that one can't help but relish every note. As such, Bernstein's current association with organist Larry Goldings has been a particularly sagacious pairing; just sample the guitarist's Earth Tones (Criss Cross 1151) for proof of that.

Drummer Kenny Washington, in addition to being an astute jazz historian and radio deejay, is simply one of the best drummers of his generation, with a distinguishing sound and confident swing that can lift even the most pedestrian session out of monotony. He too has become a first-call musician and his appearances on a plethora of contemporary releases are simply too numerous to even count. Taken as a threesome, Rhyne, Bernstein, and Washington can seemingly do no wrong.

Filling out the ranks, we hear once again from tenor saxophonist Eric Alexander, who last surfaced on Rhyne's Stick to the Kick (Criss Cross 1137). No stranger to the organ combo format, Alexander has worked with the late Charles Earland and Jack McDuff and his own familiarity with Rhyne's modus operandi goes back to Eric Alexander in Europe (Criss Cross 1114) from 1995. This strapping young tenor stylist is clearly operating at full throttle these days, recording for a number of labels including Criss Cross, Delmark, Milestone, and Highnote, co-leading the hard bop collective One For All, and accumulating those frequent-flyer miles as one of the busiest sidemen on the present scene. Although acknowledged as a Coltrane and Dexter Gordon devotee, Alexander has cultivated his own voice, marked by a fluidity and fullness of tone over the entire range of the instrument. In fact, with the possible exceptions of Tim Warfield and Chris Potter, Alexander just may be one of the most identifiable and original of the current crop of tenor saxophonists. Also making a repeat performance, percussionist Daniel G. Sadownick adds some extra spice to three of the album's ten tracks.

Rhyne, Rhythm, and Song was assembled from snippets of melodic ideas Rhyne had been collecting over the years and it proves to be as catchy as its humorous title seems to imply. "People are probably going to rib me about that title but I don't care. I had to come up with something quick." A cross between a funky boogaloo and a Latin groove, things settle in with Sadownick's congas and cowbell accents meshing beautifully with Washington's pseudo bossa beat. Alexander is up first, making the most of his big-toned attack and melodic approach. Mel takes a turn before Bernstein's spot, which is marked by some choice octaves à la Wes.

From the pen of Michel Legrand, Watch What Happens brings with it an affiliation with Wes Montgomery. "I've always liked it because it lays so well," Mel explains. "You don't have to do anything with it, just let it flow." And indeed the organ carries the tune quite simply at the onset, Rhyne's later improvisation marked by an ingenious quote from Take The "A" Train.

Escaping any of the banal sentimentality of previous covers, What Are You Doing The Rest of Your Life, also by Michel Legrand, springs from the gates with a bracing lilt that's positively infectious, the opening vamp based on the old standard Delilah. Alexander tells a concise and well-crafted story, ending with a robust flourish that leads nicely into Rhyne's spot. As he does elsewhere, the organist plays with such taste and panache that it's easy to take him for granted at first. However, further listening will reveal a great sense of logic in his melodic development. After a short but of Bernstein, Mel vamps it for all it's worth backed nicely by Eric's repeating riff.

The blues, of course, can never be too far away when you're working in this type of format. The opening Stanley's Shuffle provides the fodder for a laid-back bump and grind that seems to find everyone in a good mood. Melvin spins chorus after chorus, turning on the vibrato mid-stream. "Kenny Washington loves to play those shuffles like that and we do a shuffle on every CD you know, but I think we kind of out did ourselves this time," enthuses Rhyne with a disposition akin to that of a proud father.

Bernstein's guitar attractively delivers the melody of Don't Explain in a fashion that seems to almost suggest a hushed whisper. A rediscovery of singer Billie Holiday's repertoire came for Mel during his work in 1998 on the play Billie Holiday at Emerson's Bar and Grille. "I just fell in love with that music, those tunes are so haunting." This track belongs to Peter and Mel and each one contributes greatly to the air of understated beauty.

Thelonious Monk's Well You Needn't proves the axiom that wellconstructed pieces of art can remain vital even over many different exposures. Performed millions of times over the years, Rhyne still considers it "a groovy tune." This version is as fresh as today's newspaper and the opening spot from Alexander finds him engaging in a duo with just Washington. His discreet use of overblowing stokes the burning embers, returning to the device again following the final return of the theme and ending the selection on an unexpected note.

With a discerning nod towards the work of McCoy Tyner, Rhyne and company explore two of his best and seldom-performed pieces. According to the organist, "You don't hear those songs a lot on the radio programs, at least I don't. So I'm trying to play some tunes that nobody else is doing." Oriental Flower first appeared on the classic Elvin Jones/Jimmy Garrison Impulse release Illumination!, which sported such avant garde luminaries as Price Lasha and Sonny Simmons. This interpretation is equally beguiling, if a tad bit less exotic. Solos come from all the front line players, with Alexander the most intense of the bunch. He opens by effortlessly running up and down the horn, adding textural variety along the way by selective use of upper-register cries. The better known of the two charts, Search For Peace comes from Tyner's 1967 Blue Note debut and it serves as a model ballad, enticing compact solos from everyone.

With a hint of some spicy Latin accents, we get a new twist on Coltrane's Like Sonny. Sadownick and Washington sets things up on top of Rhyne's pulsating bass line, with Alexander then announcing the head. Avoiding the usual practice of every player taking on a number of choruses, each soloist (Bernstein, Rhyne, and Alexander, in that order) goes through the 24-bar chorus once before passing it off to the next man. This happens then a second time before Alexander returns to the theme that then concludes the performance. The connections between each solo statement make for a fascinating listen on this short and sweet little gem.

The concluding What Is This Thing Called Love finds everyone taking a stab at the kind of be-bop changes that Rhyne counts as his musical bread and butter, including Washington's only solo moments of the session. Nicely framed at the front-end and the conclusion by a tom-tom fanfare that announces the arrival of the "Injuns", this up tempo cooker successfully wraps up a collection of hand-picked tunes, some of them familiar and some not, but all of them putting on a fresh face thanks to the efforts of Rhyne and company.

Always the self-effacing one quick to deflect the attention towards the youngsters on hand, Melvin Rhyne is a "classmaster" in his own right who continues to champion the use of the organ as a valid instrument for the exploration of the jazz language, to say nothing of the example he sets regarding the benefits of cross-generational fellowship.

Christopher Hovan
Jazz Journalist and Focal Point Editor for allaboutjazz.com
February 2000