Up until the emergence of Wes Montgomery, the story of jazz guitar had lain in the hands of such luminaries as Eddie Lang, Charlie Christian and Barney Kessel. What Wes bought to the table was a style that became famous for its use of octaves and block chords, taken on board by so many other guitarists including George Benson.
His use of the thumb rather than his fingers in picking out those sumptuous lines of his, served to single Montgomery out as an individual bringing something different to the music in the second half of the Fifties and into the early Sixties.
Wes only took up the guitar at the age of nineteen, taking to the instrument with an immediate enthusiasm which, within less than five years, found him as part of the Lionel Hampton orchestra. His reading skills were limited but he got by on the strength of having a good ear, an attribute recognised by his new boss.
The guitarist remained with Hamp for a couple of years before returning to his native Indianapolis; his first recordings and experience of working for a major artist were behind him, but the future was uncertain. Apart from a session with brothers Buddy and Monk in 1955, his name virtually disappeared off the radar as he resorted to a day job, limiting his playing to evenings in local clubs.
Coming up to their mid-thirties, most musicians would have felt their big breakthrough had passed them by – but in Wes’s case, his moment in the sun was just around the corner. From 1957 to 1959 he again took up recording with his brothers, the outcome being albums like ‘Montgomery Brothers And Five Others’ and ‘Montgomeryland’. As the jazz community started to take note of his skills, World Pacific Records gave him a boost as the brothers’ next release, based on the music from the musical Kismet, had the title ‘The Mastersounds With Wes Montgomery’.
Thanks to the enthusiasm of saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who recorded for the Riverside label, Wes got the chance to make a couple of trio albums for that company, both of which were well received by the critics and the jazz-buying public. On the strength of these two records Montgomery seemed to establish himself as the guitar player to take notice of. Consequently, as the Sixties broke, his services became much sought-after by club owners and bandleaders alike. Apart from leading his own groups he worked for heavyweights like the aforementioned Adderley and John Coltrane, plus there were collaborations to be savoured like one with Milt Jackson.
In the space of just over eighteen months Riverside was the conduit for the production of three essential Montgomery albums, all quite rightly rated in the five-star category.
The first of these is ‘Incredible Jazz Guitar’, a record which confirmed his newly found status in the company of three perfectly chosen musicians able to give him the platform he required. We also find the first outing for two of his own compositions, ‘West Coast Blues’ and ‘Four On Six’, both of which attained jazz-standard status.
Album number two was ‘Movin’ Along’, an equally impressive release which should never be overlooked in the Montgomery discography, for the guitarist’s work throughout the seven tracks is the equal of his finest output of the period. The follow-up, ‘So Much Guitar!’, added further evidence, if any were needed, that the man from Indianapolis had arrived as the number one on his instrument.
In 1962, he only had one album to offer his growing band of admirers, the marvellous ‘Full House’ – and, with Riverside in financial difficulties, there were less than a handful of Montgomery albums to come from that source before the business closed.
Looking for a new label, he signed up with Verve, for whom he recorded his first album in November 1964. Many jazz enthusiasts found his subsequent recordings not to their taste as he became more of a commercial proposition in settings which used larger ensembles, often with strings. He did still get the chance to play with smaller groups, his natural habitat, but his position as a major improviser had started to be more than challenged.
No-one could have denied him the chance to earn decent money for the first time in his life, but much of his output had now to be classed as ‘easy listening’. Albums such as ‘Goin’ Out Of My Head’ and ‘California Dreaming’ received lots of airtime, subsequently selling in large quantities, but the guitarist’s previous followers were left with a ‘sound’ rather than music with meat on the bones.
In creative terms, his move to A&M in the middle of 1967 (only a year before his untimely death) witnessed a further demise as he sank in a welter of unchallenging material. Hence Wes Montgomery’s music from his time at Riverside, as heard here, is the real deal for those who value artistic endeavour over and above all other considerations.