Even casual jazz fans are familiar with the name Wes Montgomery, and those who have closely followed the legendary guitarist’s career know that 1960’s The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery was probably one of his most important albums. It’s that landmark effort that’s the subject of our third review from Concord’s Keepnews Collection, a series of 24-bit reissues celebrating the career of producer Orrin Keepnews. (Previously: Coleman Hawkins, Nat Adderley.)
Montgomery grew up in Indianapolis, and his guitar skills – largely self-taught and influenced by Charlie Christian- were polished enough in the post-war years to earn him some playing time with Lionel Hampton’s touring band, but the gig didn’t last. He returned home and spent the next decade playing in various local groups, often working at regular jobs to pay the bills.
By the late Fifties he was again on the rise, and began generating a series of albums that would build to his eventual 1960 breakout. This epic album not only spotlighted Montgomery as leader, but also featured the talents of pianist Tommy Flannagan, bassist Percy Heath, and his brother, drummer Albert ‘Tootie’ Heath.
The eight tracks on the album include several written by Montgomery, including his classic “West Coast Blues,” with its familiar melody and moody feel, and “D-Natural Blues,” which is even more subdued and bluesy. It’s a piece that allows pianist Flannagan to show off his keyboard skills while still being fully owned by Montgomery and his elegant guitar.
Also on the album is this group’s fine interpretation of Sonny Rollins’ bebop piece “Airegin,” and a smooth and softly offered ballad written by Dave Brubeck, “In Your Own Sweet Way,” which again offers a nice interplay between piano and guitar. The same could be said of the old Jimmy Van Heusen standard “Polka Dots And Moonbeams,” which is given a modern treatment while still retaining its classic melody.
It would not be an exaggeration to say that this 1960 album made Montgomery a star in the world of jazz, and his fame continued to rise for the next several years. For a while he dominated the charts and won multiple Grammys, although many of his fans felt that he moved too close to the pop side. But he still continued to play solid jazz – especially in live shows – until his career was cut short by his premature death at age 43 in 1968. (Some sources give his age as 45.) He left behind a lot of outstanding recordings and this album is one of the most significant. Highly recommended.