Wes Montgomery: In the Beginning

Near the end of In the Beginning, the stunning new two-CD (or three-LP) set comprising early music from guitarist Wes Montgomery, tenor saxophonist Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson takes a solo on “All the Things You Are.” It’s a live show, the year is 1957, and the improvisation is totally happening. Johnson has a big, round sound, he plays with soul and feeling, and he’s focused. There is little room for improvement. But that’s only true if you hear the solo out of context. Because right before Johnson goes for it, Montgomery takes a solo that simply cannot be followed. It is bright, clear, smart and fast. It bubbles and explodes with confidence and force. It crushes; there is no way Johnson can beat it. And Montgomery does that sort of thing over and over again on Beginning, which collects both live and studio performances laid down between 1949 and 1958. In fact, the most striking thing about this double-album is the consistency with which Montgomery plays. How does he get so inside the music, song after song?

The strongest stretch of the set is the 30 minutes that open disc two. Recorded live at the Missile Lounge in Indianapolis on Nov. 22, 1958, these three tracks-“Soft Winds,” “Robbins’ Nest” and “A Night in Tunisia”-feature a crack ensemble: Montgomery on guitar, the outstanding Paul Parker on drums, either Melvin Rhyne or Richie Crabtree on piano and either Flip Stewart or Montgomery’s brother Monk Montgomery on bass. The group really grooves-even though the lineup changes slightly, it feels like a band-and that’s all it takes to launch Wes as high as he gets on Beginning. Montgomery’s solo on “Soft Winds” is spectacular; when things slow down-“Winds” swings at midtempo-the guitarist really finds the space and time to fly. Plus, the sounds these men make are joyous. What could be more important?

A quintet of short studio tracks recorded on June 15, 1955, in New York City is nearly as exciting. Featuring the brothers Montgomery (Wes on guitar, Monk on bass and Buddy on piano) and two unrelated Johnsons (“Pookie” on tenor and Sonny on drums), the five-piece packs a soulful punch, especially on “Love for Sale.” And there’s a fast, slithering guitar break on “Undecided” that says more in five seconds than most musicians communicate in a year.

There are a few vocal cuts on Beginning, too, and one in particular stands out. On Nov. 8, 1956, at the Turf Club in Indianapolis-almost all of disc one is from different nights at the Turf Club-singer Debbie Andrews joins the quartet of Wes, Buddy, bassist John Dale and drummer Sonny Johnson. But on “I Should Care,” everyone but Wes lays out, and it’s unforgettable. Andrews’ tough voice and Montgomery’s watery guitar is a match made in heaven. Everyone should care.

One last thing to look out for on Beginning is the ballads. Slow tune after slow tune, Montgomery shows us just how much he can do when the tempo tones things down. Perhaps the true measure of a jazz musician is not how much he can play, but what he can say with a few notes. Wes spoke volumes.