Never-before-heard music by Wes Montgomery isn’t easy to come by. Montgomery – an influence to George Benson, Jimi Hendrix, Pat Metheny and every great guitar man in between – didn’t enter a recording studio until 25 years of age, didn’t record as a leader until another ten years had elapsed, and was dead ten years after that, felled by a heart attack at age 45. His body of work can neatly be divided into three distinct periods at different labels: Riverside (1959-1964), Verve (1964-1966) and A&M (1967-1968). The latter two stints were spent under the aegis of producer Creed Taylor, who shaped Montgomery into a pioneer of the crossover jazz market, sweetening his recordings with strings and encouraging him to record the latest pop/rock hits from The Mamas and the Papas and Burt Bacharach. The musician’s musician even won a Grammy for his rendition of Little Anthony and the Imperials’ “Goin’ Out of My Head.” But even when the material was more or less traditional, Montgomery’s approach wasn’t. His singular technique, with radical use of octaves (playing the same note on two strings, one octave apart) and chord melodies as well as the inclination to play with his thumb rather than a pick, made his sound one of the most recognizable in all jazz. Resonance Records has traced the development of the Wes Montgomery sound with the historic release of In the Beginning, a 2-CD, 26-track compendium of previously unissued material recorded between 1949 (the same year he began recording as a sideman with Lionel Hampton) and 1958, including a rare Epic Records session produced by Quincy Jones.
In the Beginning is only the third volume of posthumous music from Wes Montgomery following Verve’s 1968 Willow Weep for Me and Resonance’s 2012 Echoes of Indiana Avenue. This remarkable set serves as a de facto sequel to that release, and it has the same hallmarks of detail and superior quality. The first disc largely comprises recordings of Montgomery in The Montgomery-Johnson Quintet, playing at the Turf Club in Indianapolis in his home state of Indiana. On these cuts from August and November 1956, he’s joined by brothers Buddy and Monk Montgomery on piano and bass, respectively, as well as Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson on tenor saxophone and Sonny Johnson on drums. (John Dale subs for Monk on the November tracks.) There’s an abundant, happy and sure sense of swing permeating these live performances in the then-popular hard bop idiom. The band is hot on “After You’ve Gone” and the Latin rhythms of “Brazil,” with the faint sounds of raucous crowd noise signifying the Turf Club audience’s pleasure. The quintet is breezy on George and Ira Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm,” and moody on Vernon Duke and E.Y. “Yip” Harburg’s Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 showtune “What is There to Say” which features an evocative solo from Wes following some lovely work under Pookie Johnson’s saxophone.
The quintet performances are a diverse and often playful lot, demonstrating the group’s comfort and mastery of various styles. Wes shows great fluidity on the uptempo “Four,” popularized by and attributed here to Miles Davis; another gleeful audience response is audible here as Wes takes off on his solo. Even more rapid-fire is the spirited, blazing take on Rodgers and Hart’s ballad “My Heart Stood Still,” which hardly qualifies as still! The quintet captivates on “Django,” taking in tempo and stylistic shifts within the song’s six minutes, while a sizzling “Caravan” offers Wes a chance to dramatically cut loose. The early Henry Mancini movie theme “Six Bridges to Cross” is in relaxed mode, one more example of how well Montgomery – even in these early years – could embellish and expand upon a melody without losing sight of it with his smart, economical chords.
This disc also offers the comparatively rare chance to hear Montgomery playing with a vocalist. Debbie Andrews brings the blues on “Going Down to Big Mary’s House” with Wes and the Quintet’s sympathetic backing. In addition, Wes provides solo accompaniment for Andrews’ rendition of the torchy ballad “I Should Care.” Disc One concludes with a fascinating, informal jam session held at the home of the Montgomerys’ sister Ervena’s Indiana home. It features Wes uncharacteristically on Fender bass; he’s joined by Jack Coker on piano, Sonny Johnson on drums and Buddy on vibes for Milt Jackson’s “Ralph’s New Blues.”
The second disc of In the Beginning is drawn from a number of sources. Three tracks were recorded at Indianapolis’ Missile Lounge on November 22, 1958, where Wes led a quartet with Melvin Rhyne on piano, Flip Stewart on bass and Paul Parker on drums. The Missile Lounge was the same spot where Cannonball Adderley would spot Wes the next year, leading to his Riverside contract. These tracks, including lengthy, gently swinging treatments of “Soft Winds” and “Robbins’ Nest,” capture Montgomery forming the recognizable style of soloing that he would employ throughout his career. The substantially shorter yet flashy take on the famous “A Night in Tunisia” brims with dexterity and fiendishly inventive interplay.
The centerpiece of this disc, and possibly of the entire collection, is the five-track set by the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet (billed as The Montgomery Brothers) produced by Quincy Jones for Epic Records in 1955 at New York’s Columbia Studios. Jones, in one of his earliest production jobs, already evinced a knack for clean, accessible productions with impeccable musicianship on display. A brisk, slinky rendition of Cole Porter’s “Love for Sale” is bop bliss, while Wes’ own ballad “Leila” is effortlessly romantic. The chugging, simply-titled “Blues’ showcases Pookie’s saxophone in an R&B setting. (Jones, of course, would make an art of blending jazz and rhythm and blues sensibilities.) The atmospheric “Undecided” and “Far Wes” feature fine, single-note solos handled artfully by the guitarist. Before Resonance liberated the Epic session for release in 2014 on a Record Store Day EP, only “Love for Sale” had been issued.
Sound quality is comparatively rough on a 1957 track from Chicago’s C&C Music Lounge, the Jerome Kern/Oscar Hammerstein II standard “All the Things You Are.” The 12-minute track features a virtuosic extended solo by Montgomery, however, that makes it one of the most compelling performances here. Pookie Johnson joins him on sax, but the other personnel is unknown. The earliest recordings on In the Beginning come at its conclusion: “King Trotter,” “Carlena’s Blues” and “Smooth Evening.” These tracks, from 1949, were originally released on 78s by Gene Morris and His Hamptones on the small Spire label out of Fresno, California. (A fourth side was released on Spire, “Rocking with GH,” but as it’s been reissued before, Resonance opted not to include it here.) Though Wes is a sideman on these tracks, he still stands out with his Charlie Christian-inspired licks. Sonny Parker adds his blues vocals to “Carlena’s” and is more laidback on the swinging “Smooth Evening.”
Resonance has packaged In the Beginning with a lavishness befitting its historically significant content. Within the digipak is a 56-page full-color booklet containing copious annotation. Resonance’s Zev Feldman, this set’s producer, provides an introduction as well as interviews with Dr. Larry Ridley and Duncan Schiedt, and both Ashley Kahn and Bill Milkowski offer detailed commentary. The late Buddy Montgomery reflects on the Turf Club and the period’s racial climate in an excerpt from his unpublished book. Quincy Jones, as told to Ashley Kahn, shares his own illuminating memories, and Pete Townshend contributes a warm, entertaining appreciation of Montgomery. The booklet alone boasts an embarrassment of riches to place this music in context. George Klabin and Fran Gala are responsible for the superb sound restoration that lends many of the live tracks their “you are there” ambiance.
This entertaining journey through the embryonic years of Wes Montgomery’s career proves richly rewarding. With its portrait of the artist as a hungry young man, Resonance has revealed another layer of a musician we all thought we knew.