Monk Montgomery developed the idea for the combo while living in Seattle after he got off the road with the Lionel Hampton Big Band in 1956. According to Ralph J. Gleason, a down beat columnist at that time: “Monk, from his experience in Seattle, was convinced a good jazz group would have a chance to work in that city and he was right.”
The Mastersounds opened at Dave’s Blue Room on January 14, 1957 for a successful three month engagement. However, a dearth of work followed prompting the group to pool its meager resources and send Monk Montgomery on a trip to San Francisco and Los Angeles looking for gigs and a recording contract.
Shortly after arriving in San Francisco, Monk Montgomery stopped by The Jazz Showcase, a then newly formed club on venerable Market Street with a unique “soft drink only” policy. Dave Glickman and Ray Gorum, owner and manager of the club, respectively, upon hearing the Mastersounds tapes Monk Montgomery had brought along, booked the group into the room beginning in September, 1957 for an unlimited engagement.
The fairy-tale quality of Monk Montgomery’s California trip was to get even better when he continued his ‘quest’ down to Hollywood. There he met fellow bassist Leroy Vinnegar whose immediate reaction to listening to the Mastersounds demo tapes was to call Dick Bock, president of World Pacific Records. Upon hearing them, Bock signed the group to a contract that would result in six albums being produced for the World Pacific/Pacific Jazz Series until The Mastersounds disbanded as a performing group in December, 1959.
Sadly, none of the Pacific Jazz recorded legacy of the Mastersounds has found its way onto compact disc. Ironically, the group reunited in the recording studios of Fantasy Records on August 10 and November 2, 1960 and the two albums that group made on these dates [Fantasy 3305 and 8862] have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds Fantasy FCD 24770-2. The cover art for this CD is by Ray Avery and is shown as the graphic lead-in to this article.
The CD tray plate annotations offers the following comments about The Mastersounds:
"Because their instrumentation of vibes-piano-bass-drums mirrored that of the contemporaneous Modern Jazz Quartet, one of the finest and most celebrated groups of all time, the Mastersounds may have been somewhat overlooked. Moreover, the Mastersounds best known members, vibist-arranger Charles “Buddy Montgomery [b. 1930] and William “Monk” Montgomery [1921-1982], who pioneered the electric bass in jazz, were the younger and older brothers, respectively, of Wes Montgomery, merely the greatest jazz guitarist of the post-bop era. (The ensemble was completed by drummer Benny Barth who, like the Montgomerys, was from Indianapolis and pianist Richie Crabtree). Still, the West Coast foursome’s coolly soulful, tastefully-arranged approach won them their share of fans, as well as the 1959 Down Beat Critic’s Poll for Best New Group."
At World Pacific, The Mastersounds first LP – Jazz Showcase … Introducing the Mastersounds [PJM-403] incorporated many tunes and arrangements that had become staples of their repertoire during the group’s tenure at the club including a spirited [an oft-requested] version of Bud Powell’s Un Poco Loco, Wes’ Tune by Wes Montgomery, and Dexter’s Deck by tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon. This debut album also offers intriguing Buddy Montgomery arrangements on such standards as Lover, If I Should Lose You, That Old Devil Moon and Spring is Here.
Fortunately or unfortunately, depending upon your point of view, what followed this initial release were three Mastersounds albums on World Pacific which were intended to capitalize on the Jazz-Impressions-of-Broadway-Show craze that swept the country in the late 1950s.
In the span of about two years, Dick Bock was to release The King and I: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [PJM-405], Kismet: An Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1243] which included Wes Montgomery, and Flower Drum Song: A Modern Jazz Interpretation by the Mastersounds [WP-1252].
These three LPs were a commercial success for Dick Bock’s label and helped to enhance public awareness of the Mastersounds. Somewhat surprisingly, given the inappropriateness or unwieldiness of much of the material for Jazz treatments, each does contain some interesting music.
The King and I offers intricate arrangements by Buddy Montgomery particularly on Getting to Know You and Shall We Dance; Kismet has a lovely interpretation of Baubles, Bangles and Beads and some fresh ideas on how to syncopate the usually stodgy Stranger in Paradise; Flower Drum Song with tunes such as Love Look Away, Grant Avenue, Chop Suey and I’m Going to Like it Here provide many opportunities to employ pentatonic scales, modal vamps and even a Max-Roach-tympani-mallet extended drum solo by Benny Barth.
It wasn’t until late in 1958 with the issuance of Ballads and Blues [WP 1260] that the Mastersounds returned to its jazz roots.
This album includes a captivating Blues Medley made up of Milt Jackson’s Bluesology, Dizzy’s rarely heard Purple Sounds, and John Lewis’ Fontessa, as well as, first-rate interpretations of Miles’ Solar and Dizzy’s The Champ.
In late 1958 and throughout 1959, the Mastersounds became a frequent fixture at the Jazz Workshop in San Francisco, while also appearing that year at the Blue Note in Chicago, Birdland in New York and Rhode Island’s Newport Jazz Festival.
With their return to Southern California in 1959 for a stint at Jazzville in Hollywood, Dick Bock picked their April 11th concert at Pasadena Junior College to record an issue their only in-performance recording – The Mastersounds in Concert [WP 1269].
As C.H. Garrigues, jazz critic of The San Francisco Examiner at the time comments in his liner notes for the recording:
“From the opening of ‘Stompin’ at the Savoy’ through the tongue-in-cheek sentimentality of ‘In a Sentimental Mood,” into the flying carpet of ‘Love for Sale,’ through the thoughtfully lyric development of ‘Two Different Worlds,’ … it would be difficult to find any area of sincere jazz feeling in which they are not at home.”
And, in celebration of their warm reception as artists-in-residence at their beloved North Beach San Francisco bistro, The Jazz Workshop, at the end of 1958, World Pacific released The Mastersounds Play Compositions of Horace Silver at the Jazz Workshop [WP-1282].
With their sensitive interpretations of Horace’s Ecaroh, Enchantment, Nica’s Dream, Doodlin’, [the-all-too-rarely-heard] Moonrays and Buhania, as Richard Bock points out in his liner notes:
“The music of Horace Silver provides a perfect vehicle for the Mastersounds to project their very earthy concept yet sophisticated jazz conception. The group has never been recorded in better form. …
The Mastersounds have reached a jazz maturity that has developed from over three years of playing together. This collection of the music of Horace Silver, one of Jazz’s greatest new composer-arrangers, represents a high point in the Mastersounds’ career.”
For a variety of reasons both personal and professional, the Mastersounds decided to disband as a performing and touring group in 1960, although the fact that they all took up residence in the greater San Francisco area after this decision made it easy for them to regroup later in the year to record the two sessions for Fantasy.
From the standpoint of what might have been, and to my great delight since these are their only recordings in a digital format, the Fantasy recordings made on August 10 and November 2, 1960 which have been combined and issued as The Mastersounds [Fantasy FCD 24770-2] show the group to be in exceptional form both individually and collectively.
The ensemble work is superb, the arrangements are intricately complex, and their improvisations are, to a man, their best on record, especially those of Benny Barth who had developed into a inventive and technically adroit drummer over the 4 year span of the group’s existence.
Unfortunately, the Mastersounds existed during a time when the World of Jazz, unlike today, basked in a surfeit of riches making their superb contributions to the genre all too easy to overlook.
And, with all due respect to Messer’s Jackson, Lewis, Heath and Kay, the Mastersounds during its brief life, were the equal musically, of anything offered by the MJQ with the exception of its longevity which, in and of itself is not always the ultimate standard of judgment.
The problem in any “Age of Excess” is that the star that burns the longest is not necessarily the brightest.
And yet, the existence of the Mastersounds made my formative days in the World of Jazz all the better for having not missed the opportunity to know them and their music.
It is always important to remember those who helped "make you as you go,” thus - a remembrance of the Mastersounds.
[The Jazzprofiles editorial staff wishes to acknowledge Ralph J. Gleason, Russ Wilson, Nat Hentoff, Richard Bock and C.H. Garricules whose Mastersounds liner notes provided much assistance in the factual and interpretive material contained in this feature.]