Guest Author - Sue Sutherland-Wood
The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery is another of the recent re-issues from the Keepnews collection and if you enjoyed Wes’ guitar work on Nat Adderley’s Work Song this is the perfect album to hear even more. The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery also earned him the ‘New Star’ award from Downbeat magazine and is a key jazz album for the time period it represents. Like Work Song the liner notes here are chock full of quirky facts and asides from Orrin Keepnews, noted producer and can be enjoyed with the album – which incidentally, was recorded at the same time as Work Song in only a matter of days!
Wes Montgomery is now recognized as one of the most important guitarists in jazz history and is often included in the same celestial category as his hero, Charlie Christian. Completely self taught, preferring his thumb to a pick and unable to read music at all, Wes was nonetheless a gifted guitarist and an outstanding composer. Because he had no formal instruction, his playing technique was highly individual and many of his executions were difficult for other [mortal] people to replicate. One of Wes' abilities included playing two notes simultaneously, but an octave apart -- yet with very typical self deprecation, he simply shrugged this off as something he had discovered randomly and then just incorporated into his playing.
You know, like you do.
This modesty was very much a part of Wes’ personality and even translates to his playing since his sound is so gentle, careful and understated even in its brilliance. Apparently, Wes was a shy and quiet person, always unsure of himself. He was also a family man (he had seven children) and played in clubs at night only after completing his day job as a welder; in fact, if it hadn’t been for Cannonball Adderley catching one of these gigs after hours one night in Indianapolis, completely by chance, there is little doubt that Wes would have just stayed where he was. But you can read all about that in the liner notes …
The album opens with Wes’ take on Sonny Rollins’Airegin played energetically and with crisp single notes unfurling at top speed. This would be no small feat for anyone, but it’s made all the more baffling and impressive when you remember that the guy was unable to read music! Clearly, this kind of genius is a step beyond having a ‘good ear.’
D-Natural Blues is cool and smoky as liquid nitrogen and has a bass line that swirls hypnotically. This is a piece that could fit seamlessly into in any era and still sound relevant. It has an unusually precise ‘old fashioned’ conclusion too which is an interesting departure from the usual fade out.
Polka Dots and Moonbeams will be a familiar tune to many people who may not recognise the title. I absolutely adore this song and although it undergoes an extreme makeover in Montgomery’s skilled hands, the result is a shift from the overly sentimental (think:pre-war crooner anthem) to satiny smooth jazz that sounds timeless and clean.
Mr.Walker is an interesting piece, Latin in tempo at times, and showcases what an accurate and incendiary player Montgomery really was. This song, a Montgomery original, also provides plenty of showcasing for pianist Tommy Flanagan who rises to the challenge and copes admirably with the pace.
Wes Montgomery impressed critics and fans alike from his very first appearance on the jazz scene and was well liked by all who knew him. Although he drifted into pop music latterly and ultimately enjoyed most of his (financial) success for this kind of mainstream work, he remains most well loved and respected for his innovations in jazz. Tragically, he passed away in 1968 from a heart attack. He was only in his early forties.
Wes’ grandson, Anthony, successful and talented in his own right, has an informative and touching section devoted to his grandfather on his website.
And finally, in the very excellent Orrin Keepnews book The View from Within: Jazz Writings 1948-1987 there is an entire section about Wes under "Some of my Best Friends."
Buy The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery on CD at amazon.com!