Original Release Date: May 31st 1965
Re-release date (with added tracks): February 15th 2005
Availabilty: CD, MP3 download, iTunes
Wynton Kelly (piano),
Wes Montgomery (guitar),
Paul Chambers (bass),
Jimmy Cobb (drums).
No Blues, If You Could See Me Now, Unit 7, Four on Six, What's New?, Willow Weep for Me, Portrait of Jenny, Surrey With the Fringe on Top, Oh, You Crazy Moon, Misty, Impressions
Wes Montgomery has been an influence on succeeding generations of jazz guitarists, for example Pat Metheny, as reported to Jim Ferguson:
"When I was 13 years old and just starting, Wes was my first guitar-playing hero. …..Wes' phrasing and melodic development affected me the most. He had a story-telling quality that let ideas unfold over time in a way no guitarist had done before. He took certain stylistic breakthroughs of Sonny Rollins and John Coltrane and applied them to the guitar in a way that is the ultimate achievement for an improvising musician. On a phrasing level, he made the guitar speak. Up to that point, players picked every note and had guitar-like phrasing. He was in the same ballpark with the greatest horn improvisers; he's probably the only pre-1970 guitarist I can say that about….. Wes was a harmonic improviser second to none. He also got that horn-like Clifford Brown articulation happening. ….."
And he is adamant on the merit of "Smokin' At The Half Note":
"One of my pet peeves is that people say Wes sold out, but his later records are some of my favorites. The one I recommend most highly is Smokin' At The Half Note. I can sing every note played by Wes, Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb. "If You Could See Me Now" is the greatest guitar solo ever played, including anything by Jimi Hendrix, Robert Johnson, or anybody else. It's the highest level attained on the guitar in terms of just dealing with music……Wes was a very special cat".
As to influences on Wes Montgomery, Charlie Christian is a clearly recognized forerunner, yet that it not to say too much since Charlie Christian just about invented the electric jazz guitar genre. However, Wes Montgomery only began playing guitar when he heard Charlie Christian. Less frequently recognized is the influence of the Beligian guitarist, Django Reinhardt. Trapped at age 18 in 1928 in a fire the injuries from which almost completely paralysed his third and fourth fingers on his left hand, he developed a completely original way of playing guitar left hand using mainly only his three good fingers. And it is clear, especially when you listen to Wes Montgomery's extended solos that the octave playing (sounding two strings an octave apart rather than one note to get a more reverberant sound) and even the playing of whole tunes harmonically in rapidly changing chords all derive from Django Reinhardt. Though there has been controversy and misinformation about Wes Montgomery's redoubtable technique recently released video footage ("Wes Montgomery Live in '65") supports the view that his left hand technique had great similarity to that of Django Reinhardt.
Pat Metheny: "I recently saw a video of him playing with a Dutch big band. What knocked me out was that he casually looked around-as he used just three left-hand fingers-making it all seem so easy". Very Django.
And then there was Wes Montgomery's right hand technique.
Les Paul, as quoted by Jim Fergusson: "When I first heard Wes Montgomery, he was at Count Basie's in Harlem. I was absolutely floored by his technique and what he was doing with his thumb. You could tell that he had listened to me, Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and others".
Rather than pick the strings with a plectrum, a pick or with fingernails, Wes Montgomery simply used his thumb (which was by all account double jointed) to stroke the strings. The combination with the Django Reinhardt derived left hand technique is a wholly original synthhesis that, as Pat Metheny noted: "Even now there are so few guitarists who can play inside a rhythm section and make it swing like that. A lot of it was the thumb factor. Since he didn't use a pick, he had to not only learn different ways of negotiating tempos, but also innovate ways of getting from point A to point B on the guitar neck..…"
Wes Montgomery was born on March 6, 1923, in Indianapolis, Indiana, the middle of three bothers who all made a name in jazz. It was not until he was nineteen (on hearing Charlie Christian on the radio) that he purchased an electric guitar and taught himself to play all of Charlie Christian's recordings note by note. During his life, he was never able to read music. He began playing in local clubs, initially imitating Charlie Christian and joined Lionel Hampton's band in 1948. Returning to Indianapolis in 1950, he began playing locally and then formed a group with his brothers Monk and Buddy (on bass and vibes, respectively) that played on the West Coast and back in Indianapolis. He was discovered by Cannonball Adderley and introduced to Riverside Records from where his career took off, producing a string of impressive albums and receiving almost universal acclaim.
Wes Montgomery's lifestyle was very different from that of the hard boppers like Grant Green or Hank Mobley. He was teetotal, afraid of flying, homespun, family orientated. And yet somehow the jazz life still took him away early; he died of a heart attack in his wife's arms in June 1968, aged 43. Nor had he suffered disillusionment and lack of success; by joining Verve records and consenting to string backings as he played pop tunes such as "Eleanor Rigby", "Prelude To A Kiss" or "Baubles, Bangles and Beads" he had enjoyed commercial success to the end.
The music on "Smoking At the Half Note" was recorded in 1965 for a radio show "Portraits In Jazz". The initial release provided only half of the set, the complete performance only being available on "Wes Montgomery— Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides". This 2005 re-release puts that right by including all the Half Note material. The added material is not recorded to the same quality and still has the annoying compere introducing each number. But the music is of such importance that this can be forgiven. This is more than the case since the added material includes a blistering version of John Coltrane's "Impressions".
The background to this is that three of the five tracks as released on the original "Smokin' At The Half Note" album were not recorded "live" at all: "Unit 7", "Four on Six" and "What's New?" were recorded some months later by Rudy Van Gelder at the request of producer Creed Taylor. Only the two openers "No Blues" and "If You Could See Me Now" were actually recorded "live". The remaining "live" tracks" - "Willow Weep for Me", "Portrait of Jenny", "Surrey With the Fringe on Top", "Oh, You Crazy Moon", "Misty", and "Impressions" – were eventually released after Wes Montgomery's death on the album "Willow Weep For Me" and were overdubbed with string accompaniments to attempt capitalize on Wes Montgomery's then success as a smooth jazz artist. The 2005 released version removes the strings and restores all the recorded material (together with the studio takes) on a single album for the first time.
Though the album is often treated primarily as a Wes Montgomery date, it is very much a collaboration with the Wynton Kelly trio, the tight rhythm section that powered Miles Davis' band through 1961 – 1963, including "Kind Of Blue"(although Wynton Kelly was replaced by Bill Evans on that iconic album on all but "Freddie Freeloader") and the Blackhawk sessions with Hank Mobley. As the tightest rhythm section around at the time, they power Wes Montgomery's playing with expert drive and fluency. Wynton Kelly, as at the Blackhawk, is in tremendous form, delivering fleet footed, bluesy piano solos and comping brilliantly. The conjecture that great music in jazz always depends on a co-operation with other musicians on a point of greatness themselves is more than borne out here. Wes Montgomery is provided with the ideal vehicle in which to excel.
The disc opens with a version Miles Davis' "No Blues" which with suitable (but restrained live background noise) sets the scene for the 'live' date. Wes Montgomery struggles with the early solos but within a few bars is playing on octaves and lifting the whole performance.
Pat Metheny is right; the guitar work on the next track, Tadd Dameron's "If You Could See Me Now," is simply remarkable in its simplicity and its intensity.
The three studio recorded tracks follow. Hank Jones's "Unit Seven" is latin-like with sweeping solos from Wynton Kelly; Wes Montgomery's own "Four on Six" is upfront, upbeat blues and the Bob Haggart / Johnny Burke composition “What's New” is lithe, slinky and very bluesy.
The newly restored tracks, all standards, have a different, late night club feel and show how Wes Montgomery's music could so easily move in the direction of smooth ballads.
The final "Impressions" shows Wes Montgomery's technique to the full as he (almost casually) turns in the John Coltrane masterpiece in single note runs, in octaves and then in chords, a tour de force that you can witness in a 1965 performance in Belgium on the recently released DVD "Wes Montgomery Live in '65".
This is a fitting finale to a remarkable album that highlights Wes Montgomery's place as a pioneer in the development of jazz guitar and perhaps its most fluent and inventive practitioner of all time.
Star Rating *****
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Jim Ferguson's perceptive articles on Wes Montgomery
Wes Montgomery discography
To preview and purchase Adrian Ingram's biography: "Wes Montgomery" at amazon:
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