Jazz Institute of Chicago

Classic recordings—Wes Montgomery

The Complete 'Smokin' at the Half Note', Vol.2
The Complete 'Smokin' at the Half Note', Vol.1

Classic recordings—Wes Montgomery
by Stuart Nicholson

The Complete 'Smokin' at the Half Note', Vol.1
+Verve (J) POCJ-1816.

Wynton Kelly (p); Montgomery (g); Paul Chambers (bs); Jimmy Cobb (d).
'Half Note', New York City: 24 June 1965.
No blues. If you could see me now.
Same personnel.
Van Gelder Studio, Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: 22 September 1965
Unit 7. Four on six. What's new.
The Complete 'Smokin' at the Half Note', Vol.2
+Verve (J) POCJ-1902.

Wynton Kelly (p); Montgomery (g); Paul Chambers (bs); Jimmy Cobb (d).
'Half Note', New York City: June 1965

No blues. If you could see me now. Willow weep for me. Impressions. Portrait of Jennie. The surrey with the fringe on top. Four on six. Misty.

The name Wes Montgomery is immediately synonymous with his 'signature' sound on electric guitar. This was due in part to the deep-bodied, acoustic-electric Gibson L-5 CES closely associated with him throughout his career and played (in the late 1950s and into the 1960s) through a Fender valve amplifier. But although the guitar-amp combination produced quite a distinctive sound in its own right, Montgomery produced a far thicker tone than any other guitarist in jazz because he used the meat of his thumb instead of a plectrum.

An autodidact, he picked up the guitar at the relatively late age of 19, and quickly developed a uniquely personal sound based on an unorthodox technique which simultaneously charmed and confounded his fellow guitarists.

He first made an impact with a series of recordings for Orrin Keepnews' Riverside label beginning with The Wes Montgomery Trio (OJC-034) from October 1959 and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (OJC-36)[i] from 12 weeks later. He recorded regularly with Riverside until 1964, when he signed with Verve whom he left in 1967 to join the A&M label where he remained until his premature death in 1968.

No guitarist in jazz could afford to ignore Montgomery's recordings, whether to incorporate his patented parallel 'octave' sound (something fellow guitarist George Benson took a stage further by playing octaves with either a major or minor third in between that in turn became Benson's patented signature), his remarkable voice-leading passages over blocked chords, his tone, or his incredibly fluent technique. If the first wave of electric guitarists can be said to have been headed by Charlie Christian, then the second great wave was headed by Montgomery.

According to many observers, his studio recordings never did him justice and certainly the 'live' selections from the Half Note seem to offer a more valuable perspective on his playing than his previous live disc, Full House (OJC-106) from 1962, also with Kelly, Chambers and Cobb at the time moonlighting from the Miles Davis sextet.

"No blues" belies its title since it is, in fact, a 12-bar blues. The head is dispensed with in one chorus and gives way to Montgomery's solo, constructed with great regard for form which was a hallmark of his playing. Generally, his best solos moved through quite specific developmental stages in their construction. Beginning with single-note playing, he progressed to octaves, then to octaves mixed with chords, reaching towards a climax with dramatic block chord passages. These climaxes were made even more exciting by the use of question-and-answer chords with octave punches, evoking the 'shout' choruses employed by big band arrangers.

The use of alternating textures in strong riff patterns may have been the influence of big bands on Montgomery, who was brought up during the big band era. He first learnt the guitar copying Charlie Christian solos with Benny Goodman and his first 'name' job was with Lionel Hampton between 1948 and early 1950, where as the only teetotaler in the band he earned the nickname of 'The Rev' from his exuberant bandmates including Charles Mingus, Milt Buckner and, for a brief spell, Fats Navarro.

Montgomery, however, was not alone in modeling his solos on big band arrangements typical of the Swing-Era; Ella Fitzgerald's scat solos, for example, were probably influenced by the brass and saxophone environment she grew up in with in the Chick Webb band. Even after she had digested bebop, her scat choruses followed specific 'developmental' passages that worked towards a 'big band' climax in her 'solo'[ii], frequently alternating bilabial plosives, similar in sound to a wind instrument, with lingua-alveolar plosives, similar to brass instruments, in call-and-response episodes.

Montgomery's association with the Wynton Kelly Trio lasted for the summer of 1965, touring the major jazz clubs in the US plus an appearance at the Newport Jazz Festival on the afternoon of Sunday, 4 July. The live recordings date from the beginning of their working relationship, and provides a wonderful opportunity to examine the playing of Kelly, a great underappreciated talent who on form, as here, was both an elegant soloist and, as might be expected with someone with perfect pitch, a nonpareil accompanist.[iii]

His trio came together in the Miles Davis quintet and sextets of 1959-63, and played with a cohesion and polish rare in jazz. This was due in no small part to the easy, buoyant swing of Chambers and the deft, assertive Cobb who worked so well with him. Indeed, Cobb had previously toured briefly with Montgomery in an organ trio with Melvyn Rhyne in 1963 and was no stranger to the guitarist's playing, providing another reason why this group meshed together so well.

Both Montgomery and Kelly have plenty of room to stretch out on "Unit seven," a 44 bar AABA composition where the A sections are a 12 bar blues and the B section a straightforward 'middle 8' built around the ii-V-1 and ii-V progression. Kelly takes two precise, yet swinging choruses that set the climate for Montgomery's four that follow. As he works towards his inimitable block chord passages, the 'chains of inversions' that were such a trademark of his style, it is interesting to note his use of chromatic 'push chords', chords a semi-tone below the main chord that are played much like a grace-note, giving impetus to his line (for example, a B7 into a C7).

Once again Montgomery's strong affinity for the blues is apparent, a blues feeling that permeated all his work, even his interpretations of popular standards. However, it was not an affectation the way some players consciously adopted bluesy mannerisms to sound 'funky', but rather an underlying aesthetic that colored his whole approach to playing.

His solo on his own composition, "Four on six," which he had previously introduced in 1960 on The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, is another fine example of his work. It unites all the main characteristics of his style and it is easy to see how he turned the jazz world on its collective ear with work of this quality.

The overall structure of "Four on six" is simple, a 16-bar ABA1 C composition with each section 4 bars. It is preceded by a 16-bar intro, with the bass and piano in unison, playing a bass line in intervals of a fifth. Montgomery enters in bars 11 and 12 with stop chords (which will later appear as part of C). The 4-bar A theme is outlined, contrasted with the B section comprising stop chords for 4 bars, A is repeated again, and contrasted with a different configuration of stop chords in C, leaving the final two bars as a solo break leading into the 16-bar modified blues sequence for solos, now played with a walking bass.

Montgomery's seven choruses that follow show him the consummate storyteller, his blues-based rhythmic feel creating a solo of genuine excitement, complexity and strong melodic interest. Perhaps the most arresting aspect of his playing, not just here but on all the numbers so far discussed, is the feel of spontaneous improvisation guided by a sense of direction and cohesion. His frequent use of thematic development in his solos gave his work a feeling of balance and symmetry as much as his use of developmental passages to reach a climax.

In the autumn of 1961, Montgomery played for a while with John Coltrane's group, including a performance at the Monterey Jazz Festival, that culminated in an offer from the saxophonist to become a permanent member. Montgomery declined because of other obligations, something Coltrane regretted, but a legacy of this brief period is his version of "Impressions," with some of Montgomery's most powerful playing of the whole Half Note date; single-note lines singing effortlessly before giving way to an adventurous yet supple climax of octaves and block-chords.

In contrast were several ballad interpretations that reveal a more ingratiating style of such universal appeal that would later set the stage for his cross-over into easy listening jazz. Indeed, "Willow weep for me," "Portrait of Jennie," and "Misty" subsequently appeared on Willow Weep for Me (Verve V6-8765) with Wynton Kelly's piano almost totally removed from the mix and some very bland brass and woodwinds arranged by Claus Ogerman added during the post-production stage, reflecting the new direction the guitarist's career had taken.

Much of Montgomery's subsequent output became biased towards 'pop-jazz', a term coined specifically to deal with his brand of crossover music. With his albums appearing regularly in the Billboard Top 100 and a Grammy award for Goin' Out of My Head (Verve V6-8642), he died unexpectedly on 15 June 1968 of a heart attack at the peak of his popularity.

His influence during his lifetime had been huge and it continued to grow after his death as jazz guitarists emulated his parallel octave and double octave playing as much as his 'impossible' block chords and voice leading passages. His style went beyond the arbitrary boundaries of jazz and crept into film soundtracks, pop, easy listening and rock (for example, Carlos Santana, Jimi Hendrix, the Grateful Dead, and The Doors). Indeed, when Larry Coryell and Lee Ritenour, after years of playing crossover music, returned to their jazz roots on record, both adopted the sound and stylistic devices of Montgomery.[iv]

But it was in jazz where his impact was most powerfully felt. His style and sound became the role-model for subsequent generations of guitar players and can be heard echoed in the playing of George Benson, Emily Remler, Bruce Forman, Pat Metheny, Mark Whitfield, Kevin Eubanks, and a host of others. These recordings go some way to illustrate why Montgomery turned the jazz world on its collective ear, the effects of which are still with us today.

i. Montgomery's first recording under his own name were for Richard Bock's Pacific Jazz label. With the exception of "Finger pickin'", the single title recorded on 30 December 1957, all the remaining titles were reissued on Far Wes, Pacific Jazz +CDP7944752 in 1990.
ii. Dealt with in greater detail in Ella Fitzgerald by SN, Scribners, New York, 1994.
iii. One reason for choosing these selections over Montgomery's fine work on Riverside is Kelly's excellent performances on both the live and studio tracks.
iv. Larry Coryell's Comin' Home (Muse MR5303) and Equipoise (Muse MR5319) and Ritenour's Stolen Moments (GRP 96512-2). The latter contains some stunning playing in the Montgomery idiom.

Stuart Nicholson is the author of five books on jazz and is the only European jazz writer to have received two Notable Book of the Year citations from The New York Times Review of Books. His latest book Reminsicing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington is published by Northeastern University Press. He is also co-author of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker.

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