Winnipeg's Jazz Magazine

May/June 2013: George Benson

John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery (1925-68) Wes Montgomery’s Finest Hour

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For many fans, Wes Montgomery is to jazz what Jimi Hendrix is to rock or what B.B. King is to the blues.

After listening to an album by jazz guitarist Charlie Christian (who died aged twenty-five in 1942), Montgomery went out the next day and bought a guitar and amp. At the age of eighteen he taught himself to play the guitar. In an attempt to subdue the sound of his guitar and not wake the neighbours when he was practising, Wes didn’t use a pick and instead used his thumb to pluck and brush the strings. This unusual approach not only muted his playing, it produced the warm, rich, expressive sound he became famous for.

In 1948, Montgomery received his first break when he joined vibraphonist Lionel Hampton’s orchestra. Montgomery’s fear of flying meant he drove from gig to gig, and his small salary made it difficult to support his family. After two years he returned to Indianapolis where his life became even more exhausting. He worked as a welder from 7:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m. After work he’d grab a few hours of sleep, and then from 9:00 p.m. until 2:00 a.m. he played at the Turf Bar, and from 2:30 a.m. until 5:00 a.m. another gig at the Missile Room, an after-hours club. It was at the Missile Room that Montgomery was heard by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley. The next day, Adderley contacted his friend and record producer Orrin Keepnews and persuaded him to check out Montgomery. Within hours Keepnews was following Montgomery from gig to gig in Indianapolis, and by the next dawn had signed him to Riverside. Two weeks later he made his first record for the label.

Montgomery’s recording career can be divided in two. The recordings he made for Riverside, from 1969 to 1963, were straight-ahead jazz albums that were critically well received but achieved limited commercial success. When Riverside declared bankruptcy in 1963, Montgomery signed with Verve and later A&M and embarked on the second and most commercially satisfying segment of his career. He recorded several exceptional albums for both labels, most notably The Incredible Jazz Guitar for Riverside and Smokin’ at the Half Note for Verve. Interestingly, Pat Metheny says the latter is the greatest guitar album every made.

Wes Montgomery’s Finest Hour [Verve #0694906682] is essential listening and consists of sixteen selections he recorded from 1964 to 1968 for Verve and A&M. Montgomery’s producer on these sessions is the often maligned Creed Taylor. He encouraged Montgomery to play in a more popular style by selecting covers of many of the pop tunes of the day and using arrangements that favoured seductive strings, bouncy horns, and Latin percussion. These are the sessions that made Montgomery financially secure and provided him with his two Grammy Awards.

“Goin’ Out of My Head,” a hit for Little Anthony and the Imperials, is one of the highlights and the song that made him a star. It runs just over two minutes and is magnificently executed. Montgomery’s solo is melodic and hard driving. Johnny Mandel’s beautiful “The Shadow of Your Smile” is played with just the right amount of delicate improvisation. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Once I Loved” is unhurried and breezy. “Impressions” with Jimmy Cobb on drums, Wynton Kelly on piano, and Paul Chambers on bass, is from Montgomery’s landmark Smokin’ at the Half Note, and features Montgomery raw, with none of the arrangements that some people find annoying. Also included are many of Montgomery’s compositions, such as “Twisted Blues,” “Bumpin’ on Sunset,” and “Road Song.”

There are unbeatable rhythms sections featured on many of the sessions, including Herbie Hancock, Roger Kellaway, and Wynton Kelly on piano; Ron Carter, Bob Cranshaw, and Paul Chambers on bass; and Grady Tate and Jimmy Cobb on drums. As a soloist, Montgomery is articulate and seldom struggles with the arrangements, which were written by three of the best: Claus Ogerman, Don Sebesky, and Oliver Nelson. Montgomery was a natural musician, but he could not read music and was often uncomfortable around “schooled” musicians, so the arrangements were recorded after the principal sessions took place.

The commercial nature of these recordings inspires both love and hatred in the jazz community, but few can deny the tonal beauty and suave phrasing of Montgomery’s playing. If you are new to his music or jazz guitar albums, there is no better place to start than Wes Montgomery’s Finest Hour.

Five weeks after he played “Road Song,” at the age of forty-five, Montgomery died of a heart attack. He left behind his wife, Serene, and seven children. His grandson, actor Anthony Montgomery, who stared in Star Trek Enterprise, is preparing a documentary of Wes Montgomery’s life.

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