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July 15, 2007

Sunday in the Church of Wes

Wes Montgomery died 39 years ago today. If you think you haven't heard his guitar playing, it's only because you don't realize that he has influenced every guitarist who came after him, jazzers and rockers alike. Wes was, without exaggeration, the master of his craft. He learned to play at 18, and after a few short years of gigs with his brothers, Buddy and Monk, he was "discovered" by alto great Cannonball Adderly and the rest, as they say, is history. His 1960 album The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery was the album I listened to endlessly as a music student, and it was those tunes that I practiced on my guitar, again and again and again. My friend Chris and I would stay up until all hours comping for each other while we traded solos over West Coast Blues. One might say we were obsessed, but Wes will do that to you. (Chris was the better player -- he had Wes' amazing 10-chorus solo down pat, and could then create one of his own that was almost as spectacular. I, on the other hand, usually ended up crying in the sink at 4 am, convinced I was just another musical fraud.) He later recorded a second version of Four on Six that is just as fantastic as the first one.

Wes' style was completely original. His solos were perfectly constructed stories, journeys that began with single note lines careening into dizzying octave runs, and finally landing in a sea of full-on chordal melody that left his listeners and musical peers marveling. Wes' music was about joy, and on one of the following videos you will easily see that expressed on his face as he played. He didn't use a pick but played every note and chord with his famous thumb, and was so dedicated to the music, and to executing those wonderful octaves, that he actually played through migraines -- not surprising when you consider that he was a perfectionist who usually felt that he missed on his solos. It was often remarked that he played like a horn player because he never played stock guitar "licks". The man who had seven children and worked a day job in a foundry to support his family until he finally made it big in 1965, will be remembered as one of the two greatest of his generation. The other, of course, was saxophone genius John Coltrane, who died one year before Wes. Trane's Giant Steps is the rollicking, hard bop standard to which all jazz players must eventually pay homage. Wes revered him so much he made the saxman's tune Impressions the mainstay of his live shows (this performance is of Wes with Wyn Kelly's Trio, in Brussels 1965). Their influence really can't be measured because it's a gift that keeps on giving.

Author Ashley Kahn did a piece for NPR a couple of years ago that explores why Wes' version of Impressions (and his playing in general) was so phenomenal. But if you really want to get a handle on the meaning of both Wes and Trane, you've got to check out the men who took their playing a step further, and thereby, became the most influential guitarist and saxophonist of the current generation. Pat Metheny and Mike Brecker were great friends and collaborators. Their live rendition of Pat's What Do You Want is like a tribute to their musical mentors. It's also a really fun, high energy, hard swinging performance that makes the loss of Mike Brecker, earlier this year, a bittersweet, nostalgic trip.

I feel honored to have been able to see both Pat and Mike play on so many occasions (separately and together). I think what they took from Wes and Trane, and later expanded on, is the ability to play shapes rather than scales, to play ideas rather than "licks". Thankfully, Pat is still very much with us, proving that, while he can venture into practically any musical style, he can play straight ahead jazz as well (or better) than any living guitarist. As for the other three gentle giants, who really were known for their humility as much as for their skill, they may be gone -- but their music lives on.

Happy Sunday to the memory of Wes. In classic style, he'd probably wonder what all the fuss is about.

Posted by shoephone on July 15, 2007 at 04:29 PM in Miscellany | Permalink

Comments

A Mormon Air Force pilot in training in Big Spring Texas introduced me to Wes Montgomery in 1967 when I was a 20-year old door-knocking LDS missionary. I bought an 8-track right away and later copied onto a reel for the tape deck all us military guys bought in the Far East.
I believe that somewhere around here is a casette of A Day In The Life.

Posted by: Arthur Ruger | Jul 15, 2007 5:56:57 PM

I'm surprised you make no mention of George Benson, whose guitar style is the sincerest form of flattery of Wes.

Posted by: Neal Traven | Jul 16, 2007 10:13:33 AM

Thanks for the introduction and the youtubes. If it's any consolation, I bet you're a better writer than Wes. Great wordsmithery:

His solos were perfectly constructed stories, journeys that began with single note lines careening into dizzying octave runs, and finally landing in a sea of full-on chordal melody that left his listeners and musical peers marveling.

Posted by: op99 | Jul 16, 2007 4:48:44 PM

Should be quotes around my second paragraph - I forgot you don't do HTML here.

Posted by: op99 | Jul 16, 2007 5:03:29 PM

Neal - I originally intended to include the names of other players like George Benson (whose album, "Good King Bad", I listened to almost everyday of 11th grade) and of course, Kenny Burrell, whose sound is so much like Wes'. We could even add people like Henry Johnson and Russell Malone to the list. I decided, instead, to focus on the one guitarist (Pat Metheny) I think took Wes' influence into the future, by totally creating his own sound, his own style and even his own legacy. And the fact that Pat's other main influence was Trane really made him the logical choice for me. It's interesting to think about our biggest influences, because sometimes they're the people whose sound we don't emulate, but whose ideas and approaches made lasting impressions on us. At least that's how it is for me.

Certainly, no disrespect was meant to Benson, and I'm glad you mentioned him.

Posted by: shoephone | Jul 16, 2007 9:03:55 PM

Man, I was just listening to 'The Dynamic Duo' with Jimmy Smith...Clean wiped on yesterday's date.

'I, on the other hand, usually ended up crying in the sink at 4 am, convinced I was just another musical fraud.'

...Should have gone to Dick Grove, S.

;>)

Posted by: darkblack | Jul 16, 2007 9:10:00 PM

Arthur - your Air Force pal was a great pal indeed. There's nothing like having someone around to open up new horizons for you.

OP - thanks much, I appreciate the compliment. I feel so gratified whenever I listen to Wes' playing, maybe that's why it's so easy to write about him.

Posted by: shoephone | Jul 16, 2007 9:10:25 PM

"Should have gone to Dick Grove".

lol, db. I actually took a jazz improv class there a few months before going to... our school... and, ironically, "Impressions" was the main tune we worked on. What I remember most about that class is that it was on Monday nights, and all of us skipped out on one of the last sessions to stay home and watch the final episode of "Mash". The following week the teacher spent the first half-hour bitching at everyone for having done so, which didn't make anyone feel like playing. He sorta "killed the moment", as they say.

No, despite my bouts of feeling like a guitar failure, I still think spending that year at ... our school... was the best thing for me. There's nothing like playing your instrument 10 hours a day, everyday for 12 months.

Do you remember Norman Brown? He was the best straight ahead player there. He had a tobacco sunburst ES-175 and he played a really exciting kick-ass version of "So What" at our graduation and then went on to become one of the most succesful R&B; players around.

Oh well. Dere ain't no money in da jazz.

Posted by: shoephone | Jul 16, 2007 9:27:57 PM

You skipped school to watch MASH? Rock and Roller.

;>)

Norman? Yeah, an online pal subs in his road band. At least he plays the smooth jazz in tune, unlike a certain soprano sax criminal.

:)

When I think of Norman, I remember what Les Paul said to George Benson when he started adding pop repertoire like the Beatles to his songbook...Worried about selling out, authenticity, his core audience leaving in droves - all that rhythm.
Les told him (paraphrasing) 'never mind that...Get paid, get your name in lights, you can do it your way'.

I don't think George or Norman are playing for the door anymore. Good on anyone who takes their own hard work and makes a successful concept out of it.

Posted by: darkblack | Jul 16, 2007 10:01:23 PM

"At least he plays the smooth jazz in tune, unlike a certain soprano sax criminal."

That's funny. I considered including Metheny's famous rant about that sax criminal in this post, but then figured, why beat a dead horse?

I'm happy for Norman. He deserves success. And, maybe Frank Gambale is pulling his hair(plugs) out over it...

Posted by: shoephone | Jul 16, 2007 10:16:55 PM

For me, paradiddles on a dead horse would produce a more pleasing tone than the split-reeded sharpitude that haunts the Gorelick catalog like brussel sprouts in a tenement hallway.

As for your bete noire...You could shoot an 8 ball into the corner pocket with that head of Gambale's, now. No more Ziggy Stardust fake mullets for that boy - He's the Kojak of sweep picking.

;>)

Posted by: darkblack | Jul 16, 2007 10:45:22 PM

OMG, I just fell over laughing. I think I may have hurt myself.

Posted by: shoephone | Jul 17, 2007 1:05:04 AM

Nicely done.

In re: Benson, while he clearly is a great player (he was in Capitol once, seemed like a sweet guy), he defaulted on much of his talent by doing things like "Masquerade".

Shut up and play yer guitar, George.

Posted by: SteveAudio | Aug 2, 2007 11:19:41 AM

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