Weep for Wes

Among seminal albums of the 1960s, Wes Montgomery's Smokin' at the Half Note holds a unique place. The 1965 recording represented the guitarist's rare return to small groups; except for an uneven quartet session with Jimmy Smith, it would be his last. Verve plotted meretricious orchestra projects for him in 1966, and a switch to A&M in 1967 represented a lucrative but laborious retreat from jazz. His sudden death in 1968, at 45, robbed us of the most influential and original guitarist in a generation. Indeed, the larceny proved particularly dire: In the past 36 years, not a single concert or broadcast from Montgomery's last three years has been released. His European tour of 1965 was illicitly taped at every turn, but subsequent live performances, which brilliantly countered the taste of his prototypical smooth-jazz sessions, have yet to turn up-a cry of absence when most other posthumous catalogs have been fattened by pirates or vault rats.

36 years, not a single concert or broadcast from Montgomery's last three years has been released. His European tour of 1965 was illicitly taped at every turn, but subsequent live performances, which brilliantly countered the syrup of his prototypical smooth-jazz sessions, have yet to turn up-a cry of absence when most other posthumous catalogs have been fattened by pirates or vault rats.

All of which would make Smokin' at the Half Note prized even if it were less enthralling than it is. Often named by guitarists who came up in that era as a revelation (Pat Metheny calls it the best jazz guitar album ever), it includes five numbers that showed his range and ingenuity in the hot-house setting of Wynton Kelly's trio and an intimate New York club. The material (a blues, two jazz-generated ballads, a blues with a bridge, and one of Montgomery's ingenious originals) stirred him. But Verve's presentation was less than candid, and a follow-up-seven additional Half Note numbers collected, shortly after his death, as Willow Weep for Me-was an outright instance of bait and switch. The label has recently issued a new Smokin' at the Half Note, combining both LPs, and still hasn't gotten it quite right.

I recall the afternoon I eagerly bought Willow Weep for Me, raced back to my dorm room, gathered friends for a debut spin, and practically keeled over as a brass section sidled into the bridge of the title tune. Montgomery had not been cold three months when producer Esmond Edwards hired Claus Ogerman to sweeten the live performances, a fact relayed in microscopic print in the lower right-hand corner of the rear jacket, along with the engineering and art credits. We soon discovered and read aloud, incredulously, the liner-note justification: "The orchestrations are merely an enlargement of what four guys laid down three years ago in that musty room." I love "musty." On the other hand, the set introduced an unmarred and ecstatic "Impressions" and a Coltranishly obstinate ramble through "Four on Six."

It's a paradox. Montgomery was a musician's musician who delighted in contorting song form and blues changes; who developed a thumb-picking style that involved octaves and dense chords that left other guitarists open-mouthed; who generated a rhythmic intensity bordering on obsessive. Not surprisingly, fellow musicians had twice raised him from obscurity. Montgomery had been working for a milk company when Lionel Hampton heard him in 1948 and recruited him for a tour. Yet a decade later, he was back home in Indianapolis, playing by night and welding by day, when an overwhelmed Cannonball Adderley recommended him to Riverside Records. This time he found traction. After he signed with Verve, producer Creed Taylor realized that one aspect of his intricate musician's arsenal, the octaves, had popular appeal. By 1967, it was the most commercial instrumental sound in the country, excepting Herb Alpert, whose A&M label took him on. Goodbye, Wynton Kelly. Hello, Don Sebesky.

Eventually, Verve released the Half Note numbers without the Sweet 'n Lo and also revealed that three of five numbers on the original LP were not recorded at the Half Note. Creed Taylor thought the live versions unwieldy, and took the quartet to Rudy Van Gelder's studio for do-overs. A comparison of the "Four on Six" recorded in the studio and released on Smokin' at the Half Note with the version recorded live and released on Willow Weep for Me validates his decision. The studio rendition is the finest version extant of a piece Montgomery initially introduced in 1960, on The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery. He had now revved it up to a point where the "Summertime" harmonic underpinning of the 16-bar theme, which grows out of a catchy 16-bar bass line, is knowingly obscured.

On the studio version, he plays seven choruses, four in single notes and three in chords, leaving equal space for Kelly, plus a bowed episode by Paul Chambers and eight-bar exchanges with Jimmy Cobb. The live version, though only three minutes longer, is a dramatically different animal. Except for a short Kelly solo, it is all Montgomery, beginning with a heads-up break and quickly moving to complex, sliding, willful chords that continue for more than 20 choruses, generating in the listener a bemused wonder as he digs on and on and on, apparently spellbound by the changes and the rhythm. Even so, the ending sounds like a bad splice, suggesting an editor's resolution to a longer performance.

You can hear both versions along with rest of the Half Note numbers and several of his best big-band sides on Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides. The new Smokin' at the Half Note, which at half the price is pretty irresistible, leaves off the Half Note version of "Four on Six." Including it would have meant a two-disc set. Instead, this edition adds the disk-jockey chatter of Alan Grant, intrusions that cannot be remote-controlled into oblivion because they are not indexed. This release raises a larger question: Montgomery and Kelly recorded for several days at the Half Note over at least a two-month period. Where are the rest of the tapes? Where are the live versions of the other tunes remade in the studio? Have they gone into the same sinkhole as the mysteriously unreleased second part of Verve's Bill Evans at Town Hall? Surely, a search party or explanation is in order.

Originally published in July/August 2005

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