“He was up there in our studio, banging these things out, year after year,” Bryson said. “They were never completed.”
Suddenly it seemed like they might never be. In some cases the music amounted to snippets: multiple takes of different sections of different songs, some recorded in digital formats that were no longer so easy to access.
The story of the resurrection of the 34-year-old Mellett’s music is detailed in “Sing You a Brand New Song,” a documentary screening Thursday night at the AFI Silver Theatre.
“He was a crazy perfectionist,” Bryson said of the man whose friends and family called “Coley.”
Mellett was a person who knew from an early age how he wanted to spend his life. His younger brother, Zeb Mellett, remembers Coleman proclaiming in the ninth grade he would become a jazz musician.
And he did. Mellett was in ensembles at DeMatha and the youth orchestra at Blues Alley. He took private lessons with Paul Wingo, a respected jazz guitarist in Olney, Md.
Bryson met Mellett when she hired him for a pair of gigs in Washington, at Blues Alley and for BET’s jazz program.
“Our musical partnership started in D.C.,” she said.
Mellett lived the life of a gigging musician, performing at clubs, restaurants, festivals and concert halls, often returning late at night and heading to a converted bedroom in his East Brunswick, N.J., house. Already known for his unerring guitar work, Mellett was stretching himself as a songwriter and singer, laying down vocal tracks in a soundproofed closet.
The sound of that voice could have been painful to a family still in grief, but it had the opposite effect.
“At first when you hear the music, there’s such joy,” Bryson said. “There he is, his voice so present and intimate. Then you remember he’s not there. In order to get to the joy, you have to feel the pain. Otherwise, no one would hear it. I want people to hear it.”
Three weeks after Mellett’s death, Bryson invited producer Barry Miles and audio engineer Ron DiCesare to the house to sift through the recordings. Their job was to make sense of it all, then figure out how to complete the songs.
Bryson described a typical challenge: “Barry had to find the 54th take of an eight-bar guitar solo in this tune then match it up with what Coley had chosen. It was like a technically crazy situation. If Barry Miles wasn’t so musical, and not such a genius, this wouldn’t have happened.”
Mellett had toured with Mangione since 1999, after the fluegelhorn player’s wife, Rosie, caught the guitarist on a New York public access cable TV show and recommended him for a job. Mangione added horn parts to his late bandmate’s song, just one of several high-profile musicians who worked on the project.
Steve Gadd added drums. Larry Goldings played keyboards. James Taylor added vocals to one number. (“Nobody got a dime,” Bryson said.)
The documentary includes scenes of Will Lee, bassist on David Letterman’s show, laying down tracks in the studio. “I never knew Coleman,” he says, “but you can know somebody through their music.”
That’s what Bryson hopes the documentary — and a companion album to be released in May — will do: allow people to know Coleman Mellett, the man and his music.
That music includes a duet between husband and wife. Jeanie sang with Coley, adding her voice to his composition “You Got Me Too.”
“After I finished, I just collapsed into tears,” she said. “I don’t know if I could have done it again.”
The 51-minute “Sing You a Brand New Song,” directed by C.D. Malloy, screens at 7 p.m. Thursday at the AFI Silver Theatre. The $25 tickets raise funds for scholarships at DeMatha that honor Coleman Mellett. The funds are awarded to DeMatha students who excel in music. For tickets, visit store.dematha.org.
These area high schools are planning upcoming reunions:
Groveton High Class of 1968— April 18. Email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 202-997-1542.
Wheaton High Class of 1970 — July 17 and 18. Visit whs70.myevent.com or the “Wheaton High School 70” page on Facebook.
Wheaton High Class of 1985 — Oct. 10. Email WHSclassof85@gmail.com.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.