By Paul Casey
“His playing transcended the instrument. Other Jazz guitarists, you know they’re playing the guitar but Wes and his whole approach, the way he phrased, his sense of swing, you kind of lost a sense that he was playing the guitar. He played the guitar like a horn, for instance. He phrased like a horn player and it just really caught people’s imaginations. It was really different.”
—Jim Ferguson from NPR’s The Life and Music of Wes Montgomery
The guitar was rarely a dominant instrument in Jazz. Relegated to a back-up, or to flesh out a sound, the guitar did not have the sparkly flair of a lead instrument. With the exception of Benny Goodman Sextet member Charlie Christian, or the Gypsy Jazz of Django Reinhardt, there were few guitarists in Jazz who were considered to be serious figures in the genre. Through his recordings and performances, Wes Montgomery did much to legitimize the guitar in Jazz, as well as influence a whole heap of musicians. The fracturing of the genre into Free and Fusion guaranteed its place, as well as the legacy of Wes Montgomery.
The Very Best of Wes Montgomery is a fine collection that expresses the unusual mood that the instrument and Wes could bring. It takes selections from eight of the albums Wes recorded with the Riverside label, and covers just four years, from 1959 to 1963. This collection omits the influence of the Fusion! album and its strings. It also precedes Montgomery’s courting of the pop crowd, and before the dull pull of family demands forced a genius to play simple. This collection is straight Jazz done superbly well.
“Cannonball Adderley comes bursting into my office, and announces to me that he has just heard this really great guitarist and makes the statement that we have to get him for the label. It was one of these bar band situations and they worked inside an oval bar. So I got a seat at the bar, quite close to where Wes was playing. And at that time since this was many years ago, I still had my 20/20 eyesight, but that thumb blurred before my eye, it was moving that fast. I was an instant convert to Wes Montgomery. Listened to him through all of the sets that evening and then at the end of that time span, as the sun rose over Indianapolis, as the sun rose over middle America, I whipped out a standard union contract form from my pocket and proceeded to sign him to the label.”
—Orrin Keepnews from NPR’s The Life and Music of Wes Montgomery
Discovered by Cannonball and Nat Adderley in the late 1950s, producer Orrin Keepnews signed Wes Montgomery to the Riverside Label. In October 1959 he recorded his first full LP, The Wes Montgomery Trio with Melvin Rhyme on organ, and Paul Parker on drums, the two fellows who had been playing with Wes in the clubs in Indianapolis. Only one recording from this album features on this set, “Round Midnight.” “Round Midnight” is an evocative song in most forms, but is particularly so here. Rhyme’s organ keeps the song up long enough to finish, acting as the kindly but self-preserving party host. Wes and his guitar are elegant, of course, showing the kind of unusual sweetness and quiet that can come from an electrified instrument.
The title of the 1960 LP, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, was not hubris. Three of the tracks here originate from those sessions. Brothers Percy and Albert Heath on bass and drums, and Tommy Flanagan on piano. Montgomery did two things that set his sound apart. First, he used his thumb instead of a pick, giving Wes greater freedom for unusual phrasing. As Lee Ritoneur said, this “brought the flesh and the body and the soul, right directly to the guitar.” Second, he played in octaves. Playing in this complex, difficult manner, gave the material, according to Jim Ferguson, a “beautiful, fat kind of sound.”
“West Coast Blues” and “Four On Six” are both credited to Montgomery. The first has the California sun, hanging out of cars with no top. Since Day One, the guitar has had something primal, instinctual going for it: it is cool. Electric guitars in particular. Hell, the entire success of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Blues can probably be attributed to its ability to cut down the man standing next to you with nothing more than six strings and an errant cigarette hanging on lip. Wes Montgomery, even when in a laid back kind of mood, gives a different edge to Jazz. “Four On Six” is not so relaxed, pulsing along with the brother duo’s bass and percussion, and some spellbinding playing from Wes.
The third track, “Gone With the Wind” is a much-covered song written by Allie Wrubel and Herb Magidson. It has been performed by folks like Bill Evans and Art Pepper, vocally by Ella Fitzgerald, and particularly sublimely by Frank Sinatra on Only The Lonely.
Also from 1960, comes the sublime, Movin’ Along. Only one track from that album features here, “Sandu,” with piano, bass, and drums being augmented by the flute of James Clay. Movin’ Along benefits greatly from the addition of the flute, as does “Sandu,” Montgomery’s guitar pairing and alternating joyfully with Clay.
Three albums from 1961 are featured on The Very Best of Wes Montgomery: Groove Yard, credited to The Montgomery Brothers; So Much Guitar!; and a collaboration with Milt Jackson, Bags Meets Wes! (The sheer excitement of the material necessitated exclaiming.) The title track, “Groove Yard” opens the album. Everyone in Wes Montgomery’s family made music. Here he plays with two of his brothers, Buddy on piano, and Monk on bass—who claims he bought Wes his first, four-stringed tenor guitar&mddash;as well as Bobby Thomas on drums.
“I’m Just a Lucky So and So” written by Mack David and Duke Ellington comes from So Much Guitar! “Delilah” is from the Milt Jackson collaboration. Milt, on the vibes, hands it to Wes who hands it on to Wynton Kelly on the piano. Accusation turns to getting down. Flesh improv. The cold of Milt Jackson turns to the ever-loving warmth—or perhaps just fever heat—of Wes Montgomery. 1961 saw Wes Montgomery win both the reader’s poll, and the critic’s poll awards for best guitarist in Downbeat magazine.
From Full House, a 1962 live performance recorded in Berkley, California, comes the closing “Cariba.” The following year’s Boss Guitar features with “Besame Mucho” and “Canadian Sunset,” Melvin Rhyme returning to man the Hammond B-3 organ.
“Wes was not an educated man and he could not explain to any great degree, how he was doing what he was doing. He just did it. A very ordinary man, in the ordinary sense of husband and father. People in the neighbourhood all knew him, you know, it wasn’t like he was some special person, to him. But what he was doing was creating some amazing music. I don’t believe he knew how amazing it was.”
—Nat Adderley from NPR’s The Life and Music of Wes Montgomery
The Very Best of Wes Montgomery is a quality introduction to one of the few, truly great Jazz guitarists of the 20th century. Montgomery’s commitment to his family, and humble attitude to his own talent led him to the barren land of frivolous pop covers. This collection captures that talent at its height, before the depressing realities of the world took him away from where he needed to be: performing expressive, poetic Jazz.
The Very Best of Wes Montgomery was released by Concord Music Group on June 12 and is available to order from their website.