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Wes Montgomery: In the Beginning

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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?

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