Sunday, June 14, 2020

Wes Montgomery on Resonance Records

© Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

When I was working on the recent blog feature - “How the Rhythm Section Got Its Name,” which was derived from Jerry Coker’s excellent book, How to Listen to Jazz [Jamey Absersold Jazz], I came across the following reference by Jerry about the late guitarist Wes Montgomery [1923-1968] and it immediately sent me back to the pre Verve, A&M and CTI recordings he made in the 1960s which ensured his fame and fortune [relative terms when it comes to a Jazz artist].

Since I had already covered the three organ-guitar trio recordings that Wes made for Orrin Keepnews in 1962-1963 and also put up a feature by Orrin in which Keepnews describes his friendship with Wes and what made his artistry so special, I sought out the six recordings that Resonance Records issued that really begin at the beginning, so to speak, when Wes was living and performing in Indianapolis in the late 1950s.

But before turning to Wes on Resonance, here’s the quotation about Wes and his significance as a Jazz guitarist that put the development of this feature in motion [ I have italicized it to distinguish it from my comments].

“The great master of jazz guitar, Wes Montgomery, was a self-taught player with a bittersweet career. Wes played with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra in the forties, and though already a very accomplished player and ripe for stardom, he returned to his home, Indianapolis, to live a more conventional and stable family life. It took him away from national exposure before he could rise to early fame, but the people in the Indianapolis area, especially the jazz musicians, were intensely aware of his mastery. Wes and his two
brothers, Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano), teamed up with Pookie Johnson (tenor) and Sonny Johnson (drums) to form a quintet that was legendary, performing for many years at the Turf Bar. It ranked among the finest jazz groups ever assembled. Individually, every player was an excellent soloist, and as an ensemble, their repertoire (mostly originals) was enormous, yet full of complexities in the arrangements, which were all played from memory. It was a perfect example of a group of self-taught players whose music nonetheless was expertly crafted and stylistically abreast (or ahead of) the times.

Wes Montgomery's improvising style was revelatory, especially in terms of building a solo to a point of climax, which he accomplished by playing the guitar in different ways (in themselves innovative). The first part of his solo, perhaps the first chorus or two, would be played as most players do, that is, in a single melodic line. Then in the middle of the solo, Wes would begin playing in octaves (two notes that are eight scale steps apart, bearing the same letter name but in different registers), which he could do at about the same speed as other guitarists would play single lines. Incidentally, most guitarists today will, at times, play in octaves in the manner invented by Montgomery. Then, in the next stage of his solo, Wes enlarged the octaves into tightly-compressed chords that moved in a melodic fashion, which harmonized his melodies. Finally, the compacted chords would open up into very full, widely spaced chords. By combining the various textures (single line, octaves, tight chords, and open chords), in their particular order, his solo would grow in intensity throughout its length, and the solo acquired an acute sense of order. Montgomery's sense of form also extended itself into the weaving of his melodies, each melodic fragment getting repeated, developed, and played in variations.

Suddenly, around 1959, Wes was rediscovered by the rest of the world, almost overnight, resulting in many semi-pop albums, in which Wes played tunes like "Goin' Out Of My Head" in octaves and little else. For those who knew him well musically, it was frustrating that he finally gained deserved recognition and economic reward for his genius, but at the expense of much of his musical greatness. Wes Montgomery died just a few years after his rediscovery.”

Where I’m going with this piece is to try and underscore the magnitude of the accomplishment and the gift to Jazz fans represented in the six Resonance Recordings described below.

To begin with, Executive Producer George Klabin, Producer Zev Feldman and their associates at Resonance are carrying on the tradition of the independent Jazz Record Producer which has its roots in the first Jazz recordings ever produced dating back to 1917.

Subsequently, operating out of the New York City record store from which his label drew its name, Milt Gabler formalized the role of the independent record producer with the creation of Commodore Records in 1938. In the 1940’s and 50’s, impresario Norman Granz used his Jazz at the Philharmonic concerts and artist management firm [Oscar Peterson, Ella Fitzgerald, etc] as a springboard to launch Clef and Norgan which he later merged into Verve Records.

In the 1950s, Richard Bock at Pacific Jazz and Les Koenig with Contemporary Records were matched on the East Coast by Alfred Lion and Francis Wolff at Blue Note, Bob Weinstock at Prestige and Orrin Keepnews at Riverside as independent record labels that produced high quality Jazz recordings funded from personal investment and record sales.

This is just a representative list, and a limited one at that, but the point is Jazz as we know it has been so poorly documented for most of its existed that Jazz fans everywhere owe a debt of gratitude to these pioneering independent producers for the repository of recorded Jazz that they left for us and future generations to savor.

These independent Jazz record producers provided additional dimensions to the music with photographs by such artists as Herman Leonard Gijon Mili William Claxton , illustrations by David Stone Martin, Reid Miles, and Robert Guidi/Tri Arts and informative and educational liner notes by Nat Hentoff, Ira Gitler and Leonard Feather - to cite just a few examples.

[Budgets were so lean at Riverside that Orrin oftentimes worked, not only as a producer, but also as a co-recording engineer, photographer and liner note writer for many of his albums. Under some less sparse conditions, he would later go on to found Landmark and Milestone Records. I guess once bitten by this independent record producer bug, it’s difficult to get it out of your system.]

Of course, most Jazz performances wind up in the etherworld - the music is played and then disappears - which is all-the-more the reason why we should be grateful to these independent entrepreneurs for immortalizing some of this music in recorded formats which also gives it a timeless quality.

During the big band swing era from about 1935-1945 and the modern Jazz era that followed circa 1945-70, when Jazz was still a music with a fairly large popular following, the major recording labels like RCA, Columbia and Decca had the clout to market and sell enough recordings to help make some artists a commercial success.

One of these was Wes Montgomery who had a number of “hit” [a relative term in Jazz] recordings in the 1960s for Verve, A&M and CTI before his untimely death on June 15, 1968 of a heart attack. He was only forty-five years old.

Thanks to the three, trios albums for Riverside and with other artists with whom he appeared on that label, we are fortunate to have a narrow yet unfettered view of Wes the performing Jazz artist.

But for those who want an expanded view of the pre-commercialized Wes, there’s only one place to go and that’s to the Resonance Records catalogue of six recordings which feature Wes in a variety of in-performance settings with groups and musicians based in and around his home town of Indianapolis. 

With each of these Wes on Resonance recordings, Executive Producer George Klabin, Producer Zev Feldman and their marvelous team of associates have really taken things to the next level in terms of quality of sound [George along with Fran Gala engineer and master the recordings], the almost work-of-art way in which the music is packaged, offering it, in some cases, in both digital and analogue formats, and in every case gathering a slew of never-before-seen photographs, all wrapped in beautifully designed Burton Yount insert booklets which contain interviews and commentaries conducted and written by a who’s who of Jazz notables including, Ashley Kahn, Bill Milkowski, Duncan Schiedt, Quincy Jones, Peter Townsend, Paul De Barros, Jim Wilke, Alain Tercinet, Dan Morgenstern, Dr. David Baker, Michael Cuscuna, Jamey Abersold, Lewis Porter, and John Edward Hasse, among others.

Observations about what it was like to work with Wes are also included by surviving family members Buddy and Monk Montgomery; some of the musicians who appeared on these recordings including pianist Harold Mabern, drummers Jimmy Cobb and Walter Perkins, and bassists Ron McClure and Bob Cranshaw; musicians who reflect on Wes’ influence on their own music including guitarists George Benson, Pat Martino, John Scofield and Russell Malone, pianists David Hazeltine and Michael Weiss, and bassist Jay Leonhart.

Executive producer Zev Feldman sets the tone for each release with an opening, behind-the-scenes introduction of how each of his discoveries came about; and believe me, these Wes Resonance issues involve a quest on his part.

I mean, can you imagine the smiles going on in Independent Record Producers Heaven from this outpouring of conscientious, creative and caring effort from the Resonance Team on behalf of a - wait for it - Jazz musician?

If you have a serious interest in the music, then you owe it to yourself to consider adding these Resonance Wes Montgomery recordings to your collection by a musician who, along with Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, changed the sound and the style of the Jazz guitar forever.

Fortunately, you can read more about these recordings and sample the music on them via the annotations contained on the Resonance Records website. Just click on the link below each album cover to be redirected.

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