Friday, March 30, 2007

Wes Montgomery

Few musicians, regardless of style or genre, fundamentally alter the way that people hear and sometimes visually relate to music. Over the course of their professional lifetime, most musicians hope to add just some small contribution -- a memorable composition, an identifiable playing style . . . anything, really -- to what is, simply because of the economics of the profession, a labor of love. Feeling that "it" factor from a certain musician is much rarer than music lovers like to acknowledge. You can be like me and have thousands of recordings, and yet, if forced to take 25 albums to a desert island, you can pick those 25 out pretty quickly. As you get older, you return those favorite old recordings more and more often because they always seem to offer something new when you listen to them or simply because a melody, riff, lick or rhythm is so powerful that it gets in your head and never leaves.

Thanks to the miracle of YouTube, I had one of those moments the other night when, just for the hell of it, I searched for a Wes Montgomery video, not terribly optimistic that I would find anything from a jazz guitarist who passed on almost thirty years ago. But damn if I didn't get lucky and turn up a guitar-bass-drums-piano quartet performance from 1965! I began listening to Wes Montgomery when I was about 15 years old, and really fell hook, line and sinker into him when I was in college. Even though I have just about everything he ever recorded prior to his "commercial period" during the last couple of years of his life, I had never seen him play.

Like, oh, my God!

There was Wes, sitting on a chair, smiling and playing perfectly chosen chords, impossible octaves and stunningly melodious solos on "Twisted Blues," a piece he had composed and played for the better part of his professional career. Not a wasted or bum note . . . just Wes letting his guitar sing and dance over the understated rhythms of his group. And then . . . the thumb! What is this? Like all Wes Montgomery aficionados, I had always known that Wes played with a thumb and not a pick. But to see him play what he plays with just his thumb? C'mon! He never used his fingers for anything! How could he play those lines with just a thumb?

That's a rhetorical question, because the some of the greatest guitarists of the modern era don't know and haven't even bothered to copy him, so revered are their feelings towards Wes. Guitarists as superb as John Scofield, Derek Trucks, Pat Metheny, Pat Martino, Steve Howe, Eric Clapton, Duane Allman, Steve Hackett, Steve Khan and Mike Stern either spent their careers trying to figure out how Wes did what he did or are still trying. No jazz guitarist has had the kind of impact on the instrument that Wes Montgomery did, and the only one who equals his influence is Charlie Christian, who introduced the electric guitar into jazz in the 1930s and first explored the possibilities of the jazz guitar as a solo instrument, twenty years before Wes came on the scene.

Wes wasn't "discovered" until 1958, when, as legend has it, the great saxophonist Julian "Cannonball" Adderly saw him play in an after-hours club in his hometown of Indianapolis, called Orrin Keepnews, who headed the Riverside jazz label in New York, and held out the phone and told he had to see Wes play to believe it. Wes recorded his first album shortly after that, but didn't really turn people's heads until 1959, when he released, "The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery." Incredible it was, and the rest is history.

Wes Montgomery died in June 1968 at 43, having made music far richer than it ever made him. My personal collection of his greatest recordings can be found here. (you'll need to scroll down until you get to Wes)

1 comment:

the nightfly said...

Wes be the man. Smokin' at the Half Note - Verve master reissue with 6 bonus studio tracks - is perhaps my favorite. Definitely a unique and phenomenally influential player. Died way too young.