Wes Montgomery – The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery ★★★★★

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Wes Montgomery (g), Tommy Flanagan (p), Percy Heath (b) and Albert “Tootie” Heath (d). Rec. January 1960

This CD, the best studio album that Wes Montgomery recorded, marked a turning point in the guitarist’s career and a new era in the development of the guitar. Wes had already recorded a string of albums, in the company of his brothers, Buddy and Monk and other musicians. While these had attracted favourable reviews, sales were modest and they had not achieved the desired lift-off for his career. For this album, producer Orrin Keepnews sought a different setting for Wes and placed him with a crack New York rhythm section. From the very first notes of Sonny Rollins’ ‘Airegin’, the chemistry clearly works. Undaunted by its choppy chord progression and a brisk tempo, the quartet romps through several choruses with effortless energy and good homour, spraying melodic and rhythmic ideas in all directions before bringing it to a triumphant conclusion. In contrast, ‘“D” Natural Blues’ is taken at a relaxed pace and is the first of four examples on this album of Wes the composer, with its simple but evocative theme. Both Flanagan and Percy Heath take fine solos. It also brings out the reflective side of Wes and his unerring ability as an improviser to extract strong, original melodic lines from much-trodden harmonies. These qualities are also to the fore in the ballad ‘Polkadots and Moonbeams’ where his warm, soulful guitar sound – he plucked the strings with his thumb instead of a pick – creates an intimate, conversational mood.

Two Wes compositions from this album have become jazz standards. ‘Four on Six’, with its ostinato bass riff, re-works the harmonies of Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ and ‘West Coast Blues’ gives the 12-bar blues form a further twist by converting it into 24-bar blues, using altered chord changes and giving it a 3/4 treatment with a melody that once heard, is never forgotten. In his solo on this track and on the closer, ‘Gone With The Wind’, Wes begins his solo with straightforward melodic lines, then changes up a gear by playing passages first in unison octaves and then in block chords, innovations that assist in the strategic development of a solo but which also brought exciting new expressive resources to the guitar.

With this album, Wes Montgomery showed a new direction for the guitar in jazz and inspired George Benson, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny and the thousands of other jazz guitarists who all acknowledge a debt to this gentle genius.

– Charles Alexander