Resonance Records HCD-2067

Wes Montgomery (guitar); Wynton Kelly (piano); Paul Chambers, Ron Carter, Larry Ridley, Herman Wright (bass); Jimmy Cobb (drums)

Recorded Half Note Club, New York, 24 September, 5 November, 12 November, 19 November, 1965 and unknown date, late 1965

There’s a compelling case for stating that Wes Montgomery was the most influential jazz guitarist of all time. His style, innovative approach to the guitar and the sheer beauty of his sound, has influenced and inspired legions of guitarists. Jazz guitarists inspired by Wes include, George Benson, Pat Martino, Larry Coryell, Emily Remler, John Scofield, Pat Metheny and Lee Ritenour (who named his musician son Wesley in honour of the guitarist). But Wes didn’t just influence jazz guitarists whose style can be readily traced back to him: Mike Stern and Pete Cosey who both played in Miles Davis electric bands, and who often unleashed explosive guitar solos on-stage, have stated how much they listened to Wes. The influence of Wes’s style can be heard in rock, pop, funk and even grunge music.

So, what made Wes Montgomery so special? Like that other master guitarist Jimi Hendrix, he was largely self-taught and didn’t read music (Wes was in good company: Louis Armstrong, Oscar Peterson, Dave Brubeck, Erroll Garner and Buddy Rich didn’t either). The lack of a formal music education could be seen as a handicap, but it can also be an advantage. This is because a musician is not constrained by the formal rules of music, and so is more likely to experiment and push at the boundaries, and in the process, discover new and creative ways of playing his or her instrument.

That is what happened with Wes Montgomery. He took up the guitar when he was nineteen, after hearing Charlie Christian. Wes’s trademark style – using his right thumb rather than a pick or plectrum, and his extensive use of octaves –  both came by accident. The story goes that in order not to disturb the neighbours at night when practising guitar, Wes resorted to gently strumming the strings with his thumb, and in the process, found his preferred way of playing.

Just as Jaco Pastorius wasn’t the first musician to play fretless electric bass, so Wes Montgomery wasn’t the first guitarist to deploy octaves (Django Reinhardt was using them in the 1930s), but like Pastorius, Wes took the technique to new heights and in new directions. An octave is the distance between two notes of the same name. Although the notes are the same, the gap between them (eight notes) means that one of them will be twice the frequency of the other. Wes used octaves to great effect when soloing. It seems that Montgomery discovered octaves whilst tuning his guitar.

Wes had a distinctive way of soloing: starting off with a run of single notes, and then moving onto octaves, before switching to block chords – harmonizing a melodic line with dense chord voicings. His sound was rich, warm, clean and elegant. It was a comforting sound; like having a warm drink after coming in from the cold.

Wes Montgomery was born in Indianapolis, Indiana, in March 1923, and this centennial of his birth year has been marked by a documentary (Wes Bound: The Genius of Wes Montgomery) and special album releases like this one. By the time Wes came to record the music on this album – in late 1965 – he was well established on the jazz scene, recording a string of albums for the Riverside and Verve labels (his first album for Verve, Movin’ Wes, released in 1964, reached number 18 in the US Billboard Jazz album chart and sold more than 100,000 copies).

Maximum Swing is a greatly enhanced version of Wes’s 1965 classic album Smokin’ at the Half Note,described by Pat Metheny as: ‘the absolute greatest jazz-guitar record ever made.’ The album also marked the first time a 14-year old John Scofield heard the Montgomery sound. Smokin’ at the Half Note was recorded with the Wynton Kelly Trio, comprised of Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums. This trio had famously formed the rhythm section of the Miles Davis band, and all of them had recorded with Miles on the Kind of Blue album (Kelly played on one tune: ‘Freddie Freeloader.’) The trio had previously toured with Wes and also released a live album, Full House, recorded in Tsubo, Berkeley, California in 1962. So it was a tight unit that played at the Half Note.

Smokin’ at the Half Note was a hybrid LP, featuring two live recordings from the Half Note on one side (‘No Blues’ and ‘If You Could See Me Now.’) and three studio recordings on the other – ‘Unit 7,’ ‘Four On Six,’ and ‘What’s New,’ but all the recordings on Maximum Swing are live takes taken from several Friday night gigs plus one unknown date. There is around two hours of music, most of it never officially released before (a sprinkling of tracks have appeared here and there, including on some low quality bootlegs). The vast majority of recordings are taken from radio broadcasts, but there are also five tunes acquired by the Japanese music collector Yoshio Tokui. The providence of these (presumably audience) recordings is not known – who made them, what equipment they used, how they were recorded or when they were recorded is a mystery.

The Half Note Club was one of the best known jazz venues in New York. From 1957 to 1972 (the period when these recordings were made) it was based in SoHo, before moving midtown in 1972. It closed on New Year’s Day 1975. The Half Note was owned by the Canterino family (two brothers, a sister, and their parents), who treated  jazz musicians well – they were well fed, paid on time and there were no time restrictions on the set length, allowing acts to stretch out at will.

According to Ron Carter’s memories of playing at the Half Note, the bandstand stood between the bar and the dining room. The musicians faced those eating at the tables, while those drinking in the bar only saw the musicians’ backs. Marcus Miller says that when he saw a photograph of the club, he was surprised by how small the bandstand was.

As a means of raising additional revenue, the Half Note had an arrangement with the New York radio station WABC, to broadcast a series of Friday night live shows, called Portraits in Jazz, and hosted by the DJ Alan Grant. Alan Grant was a significant figure on the 1950s and 60s New York jazz scene, but sadly now seems to have been largely forgotten (there is precious little about him online). Born Abraham Grochowsky in 1919, he played saxophone, and during World War Two, was a musician in the army band. He fought in the Battle of the Bulge, and was part of the Guard of Honour at General Patton’s funeral.

He was a great champion for jazz, and as well as hosting shows at the Half Note, also hosted gigs at the Birdland and Village Vanguard clubs. As a result, he became friendly with many jazz musicians, including, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Thelonious Monk, Billie Holiday, Stan Getz, and Wes Montgomery – the warmth between the two men has been captured on this album. His catch phrase (heard throughout these recordings) was ‘Stay beautiful!’ Alan Grant died in 2012, aged 93.

This is the seventh Wes Montgomery release from Resonance Records and the label has developed a strong relationship with the Wes Montgomery Estate (Wes had seven children, including Robert, who works closely with producer Zev Feldman on the album projects).

The previous six Resonance Wes releases had been lovingly curated and this latest is no exception – a lot of care and attention has gone into the artwork, information and packaging. Available as a two-CD release or limited edition 3-LP album, the music comes with a comprehensive booklet containing previously unseen photos of Wes at the Half Note, as well as copious liner notes, including an excellent analysis and description of Wes’s music from music writer Bill Milkowski.

Zev Feldman has conducted interviews with various musicians, including Ron Carter, who plays on several tunes. Carter was called in at the last minute after Chambers had fallen ill (at this time, Carter was also playing with Miles). There was little rehearsal time, but the gig went well. Carter notes that, ‘Wes was always a lovely person to sit down and talk with…Wes was full of great ideas. He understood how to develop a solo…he had an innate sense of how to solo.’ Carter also praises Wes’s sound and his use of alternative chords as he developed a solo, ‘He played nice songs…he picked songs he could play really well.’

Sadly, Wes died within three years of making these recordings, dying of a heart attack in June 1968 aged 45. Carter says, ‘It’s unfortunate that Wes didn’t have a chance to develop himself further. That was because he died so young…and he was always so busy.” Herbie Hancock notes that Wes, ‘Had a beautiful way of playing in different settings,’ while Bill Frisell states, ‘He set the bar pretty high for us [and] also set an example as someone who made up a whole musical universe on his own.’

Mike Stern says, ‘Wes was just the best; the greatest…It was spontaneous composition when he played…almost like creating a big-band arrangement instantly.’

Wynton Kelly was Marcus Miller’s cousin, and the bassist remembers spending time with the pianist (Kelly died when Miller was twelve). He also recalls stories about Kelly from his relatives, Jimmy Cobb and Miles (‘Man, his touch was extraordinary.’) Speaking about Kelly’s legacy, Miller states, ‘I’m really gratified that this recent generation of piano players are talking about him a lot more than the previous generation talked about him. It’s like there’s a renaissance of Wynton Kelly.’

This record rightly puts Wes at centre-stage, but Kelly’s contribution cannot be overstated, as Carter notes, ‘Wynton Kelly was great. He was right on the changes and he played great voicings.’

It’s not surprising that recordings made nearly sixty years ago created some challenges when it came to making them sound as fresh as possible. There are extensive notes from engineer Matthew Lutthans, who describes the work involved when trying to fix various audio issues such as pitch warble, tape hiss and phase distortion. As Lutthans notes, solving one problem can mean creating another, but he has done a very good job, although even he admits that the five privately recorded tracks are best described as ‘presentable.’

The first gig – recorded 24 September – features the original Wynton Kelly trio, with Chambers on bass, and they play three tunes, ‘Laura,’ Cariba,’ and ‘Blues.’ ‘Laura’ is a sweet ballad, and both the music and club atmosphere are well captured on tape – you can hear the occasional audience background chatter. Jimmy Cobb plays with brushes and Kelly’s comping is exquisite. Chambers provides the rock solid support. Wes plays a long solo, again starting with single notes, and then at around 4:21, switching to octaves – it’s a gorgeous example of his melodic playing.

‘Cariba’ is a lively Latin-tinged number with an extended solo from Wes, and some great interplay between guitar and piano – sometimes Kelly doubles up on Wes’s lines, or two of them enter into a call-and-response dialogue. In fact, it’s well worth focusing on the guitar on first listening, and then second time, focusing on the piano, to catch all the subtleties of the sounds.

Just before the band start playing ‘The Blues,’ there’s some humorous banter between Grant and Wes, when the former observes that a dear friend of Wes’s has just walked into the club. ‘He used to be, not anymore,’ quips Wes, and the two of them laugh. There are examples of the two men joking and joshing with each other throughout the recordings, and while they are nice to hear for the first time around, they do lose some of their charm under repeated play. But on a brighter note, ‘The Blues’ is a three-minute swinging number in which Kelly’s playing comes to the fore, although Grant talks over the music towards the end.

The following gig (on 5 November) saw Ron Carter replace Chambers and the band playing three numbers, Coltrane’s ‘Impressions’, ‘Mi Cosa’ and ‘No Blues’. Wes had played with Coltrane’s band at the Monterey Jazz Festival in September 1961 and was invited to join the band but declined (Wes apparently didn’t like playing so many long tunes). Nevertheless, he was taken by ‘Impressions’ and the band plays a rousing version. ‘Mi Cosa’ is a ballad, delicately played by Wes on solo guitar. It lasts for less than four minutes, and this listener wished it had gone on for much longer. The band ends with a swinging rendition of Miles’s ‘No Blues.’

A week later the band was back with a new bassist, Larry Ridley, who like Wes, was a native of Indianapolis. He has played with many jazz artists including, Duke Ellington, John Coltrane, Chet Baker and Sonny Rollins. The band played Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘Birks’ Works (Dizzy was born John Birks Gillespie), ‘Four On Six,’ and ‘The Theme.’ This is Wes’s only known recording of Birks’ Works’ and he plays a stirring solo over Ridley’s walking bass line. The set highlight is an eight-minute version of ‘Four On Six,’ in which Wes plays an astonishing solo lasting almost six minutes. The set ends with a short (less than two minutes) performance of ‘The Theme,’ which is essentially the background music for Grant’s closing announcements.

The 19 November gig saw Herman Wright in the bass chair. Wright was born in Detroit and moved to New York, where he played with artists such as Chet Baker, Archie Shepp and Sonny Stitt. He died in 1997. The band plays ‘All The Things You Are,’ ‘I Remember You,’ and ‘No Blues.’ The first tune includes a drum solo from Cobb, while Wes plays ‘I Remember You’ with such joy and feeling – you can imagine there was a lot of smiling going on when this was being performed, and at around the four-minute mark, Wes displays another example of his virtuosity with another fine run of octaves. The band finishes with another brief performance of ‘No Blues.’

The final five numbers are taken from the private recordings and are sonically inferior to the radio broadcasts. The tunes are: ‘Cherokee,’ ‘The Song Is You,’ ‘Four On Six,’ ‘Star Eyes’ and ‘Oh You Crazy Moon.’ Larry Ridley is back on bass. Milkowski describes them as a: ‘rare treat for Wes completists’, featuring greatly extended versions that have Wes stretching out in ways never heard on his studio albums – ‘Four On Six,’ for example, lasts almost eleven minutes, and a couple of other tunes are near the 16-minute mark. But the audio quality is such that I can’t imagine many listeners giving them repeated playing, especially ‘Oh You Crazy Moon,’ where the band sounds as if it’s playing underwater.

It’s a shame that the album ends in this way, and while I can understand the desire to get as much of Wes’s music out there, I’m not sure it’s a great idea to devalue the rest of the album with the inclusion of these tracks. Perhaps new AI technology will transform these recordings at some future date. Overall, though, this is a top-notch release which highlights the genius playing of Wes Montgomery.