Thursday, April 12, 2012

Wes Montgomery: Echoes of Indiana Avenue

Resonance Records
By Ric Bang
Buy CD: Echoes of Indiana Avenue

Wes Montgomery, who died in 1968, was one of best jazz guitarists of all time.

He was one of the first — Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian preceded him — to modify the instrument’s basic performance style: from primarily backing vocalists or supporting the piano and bass of a rhythm section, to producing complex melodic lines and solos via a single-string plucking technique. Amazingly, he was self-taught and couldn’t read music; he memorized melodies and riffs by listening to other musicians and records. But, oh my, how he could improvise!

His style also differed in another way: Instead of using a pick on the strings, he employed his thumb, which produced a “softer” tone.

Montgomery was born in 1923, into a musical family; one brothers played bass, another piano and vibes. Wes began using a four-string guitar when he was 12; at 20, after hearing Charlie Christian, Wes switched to a six-string model. He memorized every note of every song — and solo — that Christian played. When Lionel Hampton heard Montgomery play, the young guitarist was hired on the spot.

Montgomery toured with Hampton for awhile, but the stress of being away from family brought the guitarist back to his home in Indianapolis; he worked in a factory by day, and haunted local jazz clubs each night. Despite job offers by the likes of John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley, Montgomery chose to stay at home.

As a result, he didn’t become a star until being signed by Riverside Records, on the basis of a recommendation by Adderley. From 1960-67, inclusive, Montgomery earned six Downbeat magazine Critic’s Poll awards as best jazz guitarist; during that same time, he was nominated for half a dozen Grammy Awards, winning in 1966 for his recording of the song “Goin’ Out of My Head.”

Echoes of Indiana Avenue features long-lost tape recordings made from 1957-58, when Montgomery played at clubs in Indianapolis. His brothers, Buddy (piano) and Monk (bass), appear on some tracks; others feature Earl Van Riper and Melvin Rhyne, piano; Mingo Jones, bass; and Sonny Johnson and Paul Parker drums.

These nine tracks feature compositions by Shorty Rogers (“Diablo’s Dance”), Thelonious Monk (“Straight, No Chaser” and “Round Midnight”), Horace Silver (“Nica’s Dream”), Van Heusen (“Darn That Dream”), Billy Strayhorn (“Take the ‘A’ Train”), Earl Garner (“Misty”) and Johnny Green (Body and Soul), along with an improv number (After Hours Blues). The result feels like a visit to a small jazz club of days gone by.

The tapes were more than half a century old, so restoration was necessary; the result is surprisingly good, but certainly not equal to modern audio standards. Despite this, Montgomery’s amazing talent is unmistakable.

This is a must-have album.

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