Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Wes Montgomery - 1960 [1987] "The Incredible Jazz Guitar"

The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery is the fourth album by American jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery. Most of its tracks are considered to be the best examples of Wes Montgomery's two distinguishing techniques - "thumb picking" and the use of octaves.

The album is considered by many fans and critics to be the pinnacle of Montgomery's recorded studio work. The Penguin Guide to Jazz selected this album as part of its suggested "Core Collection", calling it "probably the best Montgomery record currently available".

Of the CD reissue, critic Chris May of All About Jazz wrote: "The Incredible Jazz Guitar burst onto the US scene in 1960 like a benign hurricane, and it still sounds like a gale almost 50 years later... Montgomery—empathetically accompanied by pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Percy Heath (then riding high with the Modern Jazz Quartet), and drummer Albert Heath—makes the guitar sound like it never had before. It has sounded similar since, of course, thanks to the legion of Montgomery-influenced players, but rarely so close to perfection.... The Incredible Jazz Guitar endures, and will continue to do so.
The incredible Wes Montgomery of 1960 was more discernible and distinctive than the guitarist who would emerge a few years later as a pop stylist and precursor to George Benson in the '70s. On this landmark recording, Montgomery veered away from his home Indianapolis-based organ combo with Melvin Rhyne, the California-based Montgomery Brothers band, and other studio sidemen he had been placed with briefly. Off to New York City and a date with Tommy Flanagan's trio, Montgomery seems in his post- to hard bop element, swinging fluently with purpose, drive, and vigor not heard in an electric guitarist since bop progenitor Charlie Christian. Setting him apart from the rest, this recording established Montgomery as the most formidable modern guitarist of the era, and eventually its most influential. There's some classic material here, including the cat-quick but perhaps a trifle anxious version of the Sonny Rollins bop evergreen "Airegin," the famous repeated modal progressive and hard bop jam "Four on Six," and Montgomery's immortal soul waltz "West Coast Blues," effortlessly rendered with its memorable melody and flowing, elegant chiffon-like lines. Flanagan, at a time shortly after leaving his native Detroit, is the perfect pianist for this session. He plays forcefully but never overtly so on the bop tracks, offering up his trademark delicacy on the laid-back "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" and easy-as-pie "Gone with the Wind." With the dynamic Philadelphia rhythm section of brothers Percy Heath on bass and drummer Albert Heath, they play a healthy Latin beat on the choppy and dramatic melody of Montgomery's original "Mr. Walker." Montgomery is clearly talented beyond convention, consistently brilliant, and indeed incredible in the company of his sidemen, and this recording -- an essential addition to every jazz guitarist fan's collection -- put him on the map. 

As the very useful liner notes to this release point out, this 1960 recording was a bit of a coming-out party for Montgomery, arguably the best and most influential jazz guitarist of the last half century. The title is not hyperbole; the guitar playing here is indeed incredible, although Wes sets aside mere flash for meaningful swing.
The guitarist benefits from a crack band behind him: Al and Percy Heath on drums and bass, respectively, and the flawless Tommy Flanagan on piano. Flanagan had shortly before this date contributed mightily to Coltrane's "Giant Steps," and his ability to seamlessly slip in behind Montgomery on a date that couldn't be more different than Coltrane's is testimony to his taste and his chops.
Wes's startling chording will be a revelation to those who haven't heard him before, but even if you've listened to him a lot you'll still find his work on, for example, "Four on Six" and "West Coast Blues" immensely satisfying. On both these cuts, he flows endlessly between chords and octaves, creating a smooth river of sound. Beautiful.
Also of note is his treatment of "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," a chestnut that Wes turns into a lovely romance that sounds new and fresh. This is a great CD for the jazz guitar lover, who will realize immediately that it doesn't get much better than this.

This is my favorite Jazz Guitar album and one that I've had for some time, first on a cassette that I got from my brother and eventually on CD. I used to listen to this in my car and didn't even know the names of the songs or who had written them. All I knew was that I really dug Montgomery's guitar playing.

After getting the 1987 version of the CD, I learned that the album included Sonny Rollins' "Airegin", Dave Brubeck's "In Your Own Sweet Way", 2 standards, and 4 originals by Montgomery. I also learned that his supporting cast included Tommy Flanagan on piano and the Heath brothers on bass and drums.

This album is a real pleasure to listen to, not just for Montgomery's truly incredible guitar playing, but also for the relaxing atmosphere all 4 musicians create. This is a perfect album to play late at night before going to bed; just turn down the lights, lie down on your couch, and let the music soothe your soul.

My only complaint about the CD I owned (the 1987 remastering) was that the sound was kind of muddy. While reviewing that version, I learned that this "Keepnews Collection" version had been released, so I ordered it to compare the sound. It does have slightly better sound, mainly stronger bass. In retrospect, I suspect that the "muddiness" I heard in the 1987 version was mostly in Montgomery's own sound or in the source tapes.

The real value of the 2008 version, however, is the new booklet with a new essay by Orin Keepnews, who produced the original sessions. He explains how he first heard about Montgomery from Cannonball Adderly, talks about the first two records (including this one) that Montgomery cut for Riverside, and explains the boastful title. He also puts the album in the broader context of Montgomery's brief but brilliant 9 year career. 

Track listing

1.    "Airegin" (Sonny Rollins) – 4:26
2.    "D-Natural Blues" (Wes Montgomery) – 5:23
3.    "Polka Dots and Moonbeams" (Jimmy Van Heusen) – 4:44
4.    "Four on Six" (Montgomery) – 6:15
5.    "West Coast Blues" (Montgomery) – 7:26
6.    "In Your Own Sweet Way" (Dave Brubeck) – 4:53
7.    "Mr. Walker" (Montgomery) – 4:33
8.    "Gone With the Wind" (Allie Wrubel) – 6:24

    Songs 1, 2, 4, 5, and 6 recorded at Reeves Sound Studios, NYC, January 26, 1960
    Songs 3, 7, and 8 recorded at Reeves Sound Studios, NYC, January 28, 1960

Riverside RLP 12-320, RLP 1169; Fantasy OJC 036, OJCCD 036-2

    Wes Montgomery- electric guitar
    Tommy Flanagan - piano
    Percy Heath - bass
    Albert Heath - drums