Nutron's Record Bag: Wes Montgomery
As a "schooled" musician (I use the term exceptionally loosely), I thought it might be nice to talk about perhaps my favorite jazz musician, Wes Montgomery, who might be the most influential jazz guitarist who ever lived.
I'm gonna talk about his life and a little history, but if you want to just know about what he sounds like, skip ahead a few paragraphs.
In the world of jazz guitar you've got about five or ten names and their rank in terms of ifluence is based mostly on how early they showed up. Chronologically speaking, Wes is number three on that list, but I consider him the pinnacle of jazz guitar. He took the instrument to an entirely new level, and while others have followed and can perhaps play "better" than he did, no one has ever filled his shoes.
The list probably starts with Django Reinhardt, who at a young age suffered severe burns to his left hand and lost the use of his fourth and fifth fingers. Playing chords on a guitar with two fingers is rather difficult (though he could manage to a certain extent), so Reinhardt instead spent all his energy on soloing and consequently introduced the guitar as a melodic instrument when previously it had been used almost exclusively as a rhythm instrument (see Freddie Green). Charlie Christian, Django's U.S. counterpart, did much the same here in the US, but not quite to the same extent, quite possibly because he was in the States with all the other jazz musicians of the day, and also because he had all his fingers.
Then there's Wes, who picked up where these two left off (and I know I skipped Les Paul -- I don't consider him in the top ten...), taking the instrument to new heights. His playing would be the benchmark for the later players that I put on that list: Jim Hall, Pat Martino, Joe Pass, Pat Metheny, and John Scofield. There are hundreds I'm not mentioning who fall under Wes's influence, but you get the idea.
The most famous in a family that included bassist Monk Montgomery and vibraphonist/pianist Buddy Montgomery, Wes's life in the jazz spotlight was short. He grew up with the music just as his brothers did, but when they moved off to Chicago he stayed home (Indianapolis) and sold insurance. At night he'd wander to the few jazz clubs there and play, but it was born more from his own need to express himself than any hope of stardom or a career in music. He earned his nickname, "The Thumb," by playing the guitar without a pick but instead with his thumb. The stories vary from his being too poor to afford picks to his simply preferring the mellower sound his thumb afforded (which I'm more inclined to believe). Listening to his music it's easy to distinguish him from almost any other guitarist you'll ever hear, mostly because of this difference.
He started playing at age 18 (late by most serious jazz musician standards), but still managed to get on a tour with Lionel Hampton by age 23. This tour was somewhat short and during his twenties he pretty much dropped out of sight. When he put out a record with his brothers in 1959 though, it opened ears, and when Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery hit shelves the next year he was suddenly a superstar.
His career took off and with the exception of a brief stint with John Coltrane's group, he was always the leader of the band. His early career -- by far the most interesting -- featured mostly Wes and a small group, usually live in a club, playing mostly standards in a free and energetic style. These recordings are a testament to his genius and listening to them one gets a hint at his character. You get the notion that he was just a really nice fella who enjoyed playing some tunes with some other nice fellas. The frustration one hears in Coltrane's music, for example, isn't there. Wes was never about challenging the boundaries of jazz like Miles Davis or Coltrane, but rather enjoying what jazz was and playing it well. Being comfortable with what he was playing and sharing his voice seemed to be more important to him than changing the definition of the art form.
These early dates (1959-1963), almost all on Riverside Recordings, have an intimate feeling with that small group sound. When Riverside went under Wes went over to Verve Recordings. These years (1964-1967) were a mixed bag. Many of these records are him playing orchestral dates and or lavish productions which included woodwind or string sections. These somewhat fluffy productions were very accessible to the radio audience of the day and while they were certainly not critical successes they did put his name in the national consciousness. But it was a sellout that disappointed many fans.
But at the same time he put out albums like 1965's Smokin' at the Half Note -- a live album with the Wynton Kelly Trio (arguably his best album) and a few albums with organist Jimmy Smith. These were the small intimate groups again. On top of that, the sound of the orchestrated and scripted albums that gained him notoriety was rarely heard at his concerts. Instead he'd play more of his patented intimate and enjoyable style.
He died of a heart attack in 1968 at the age of 43, after only about nine years of recording and serious dedicated playing.
So that's the history lesson. But the real meat of the thing is his playing style.
Wes's notoriety as a brilliant soloist and his breathtaking mastery of his instrument afforded him something previous guitarists had: time to explore what it meant to be a melodic guitarist. His early work provides many excellent examples of bop at its best, but by his later years -- especially the Smokin' at the Half Note album -- he had figured out that the guitar had a melodic and harmonic range unlike any other instrument other than the piano.
He transformed the guitar from a supporting instrument that played chords behind a soloist or played single notes in a line like a trumpet player to an instrument that mixed these things together. He introduced chord soloing (or at least did it so well that he may as well have) and took octave playing, the act of playing a melody with two notes an octave apart (a style Charlie Christian played with a little) to such an expert level that it became his trademark style (along with that thumb mentioned earlier). The best example of this (and an amazing performance) is "D Natural Blues" from The Incredible Jazz Guitar...
But playing the guitar in these fashions alone wasn't the real trick to his playing. Because he played an instrument with this kind of range of sound, he would construct his solos (as he improvised them of course) so that they started out with him playing his single note melodic lines like a horn player, shifting into octaves to build energy and focus a little more on rhythm (for obvious reasons he couldn't play as fast when playing octaves, so he would play with the time more than anything), and finally move on to virtuosic chord solos that still to this day are unrivaled. The best example of this is "Unit 7" from Smokin' at the Half Note.
Though his life ended prematurely, his music lives on, indeed thrives, through the many, many artists who still look back to his style and genius for guidance. If you find yourself wanting to own some of his music, I suggest getting the Impressions - The Verve Sides compilation. It's a two-disc set which contains a wide range of his music and all of it is great.