‘Wes Montgomery: Echoes of Indiana Avenue’ CD highlights Magnificent Techniques of one of 20th Century most Gifted Jazz Guitarist

By Danny R. Johnson

LOS ANGELES–Resonance Records’ March 6, 2012, release of newly restored and never recorded music of the late jazz and pop guitarist Wes Montgomery titled, Wes Montgomery – Echoes of Indiana Avenue, prominently showcases to jazz and pop music lovers around the world Wes Montgomery’s unique thumb-driven guitar sound; his unceasing flow of musical genius; his use of octaves and extended chordal passages; and his ability to build a solo that would sustain interest chorus after chorus.

March 6, 2012 would have been Montgomery’s 88th birthday, and the nine tracks Echoes of Indiana Avenue recording is the first full album of previously unheard Montgomery music in over 25 years.

The album showcases Montgomery in performance from 1957-1958 at nightclubs in his hometown of Indianapolis, Indiana, as well as rare studio recordings. Wes Montgomery collectors and jazz historians will love Resonance Records packaging of this CD which features previously unseen photos and essays by Indianapolis jazz historian and writers, guitarist Pat Martino, and Wes’ brothers, Buddy and Monk.

The Uniqueness of Wes Montgomery

Wes Montgomery: Echoes of Indiana AvenueCD will reacquaint jazz aficionados with Wes’ more crucial asset he had to draw upon and it hold the key to his development as one of the most important guitar stylists of the 20th Century. What really distinguish him was his incredible ear, and a refined musical intelligence which belied his self-effacing manner. Putting it quite simply – Wes was a consummate natural musician, and everything else – the touch, the stylistic innovations, the famous octaves, flowed from that foundation.

Wes Montgomery never learned to read even chord symbols, far less notation, and claimed his understanding of harmony and harmonic movement came from puzzling out the relationships of the consistent sounds which made up chords, rather than a theoretical knowledge of their parts. Echoes of Indiana Avenue clearly demonstrates why this is no real overstatement whatsoever. The proof is in the music!

Consider, for example, Thelonious Monk’s Straight No Chaser track. This complex score was originally written by Monk at the bottom a 12-bar blues, but the melody line is laid out in odd-numbered units, so it does not count out in three neat sets of four bars each, as a blues is expected to do. The melody is divided into two six-measured sections. These sections do not break down into ordinary 4/4 measures; the first bit of melody is three beats in length, the second five, and so on.

The problem for the soloist is to capture some of the harmonic and formal character of the original melody. With mastery accompaniment from his brothers, Monk Montgomery on bass, and Buddy Montgomery on piano, Wes was able to pull this feat off brilliantly! He superbly demonstrated in Straight No Chaser how to dominate the tunes as oppose to the tunes dominating the soloist.

In October 1959, Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records brought Wes Montgomery’s trio with Monk Montgomery, Buddy Montgomery, drummer Paul Parker, and organist Melvin Rhyne, who is featured on the Round Midnight and Darn that Dream tracks, to New York to cut his debut album, Introducing Wes Montgomery, which provided a solid start to the Riverside phase of his career. In purely jazz terms, Wes did his most important work for that label, and his album provided pointers to the jewels to come, notably in ballads like Round Midnight and Yesterday, but also in his tougher treatment of Missile Blues, a tribute to the after-hours joint in Indianapolis which had become a second home to him. The After Hours Blues track on Echoes of Indiana Avenue is undoubtedly reminiscing of Missile Blues.

Anybody seeking a single defining sample of Wes Montgomery’s style, however, need look as far as his version of Billy Strayhorn’s Take The A Train track, which not only demonstrates his ability to build an extended solo in logical but never predictable fashion, what jazz musicians call “telling a story”, but also lays out his most characteristic technical means of achieving that end. The classic Wes Montgomery solo pattern began in improvised single-line runs, then upped the tension with an explosive shift into unison octaves, and topped that with an even more intense leap into running an outline of the melody in block chords, a method he probable derived from the “comping” style favored by bebop pianists, and from guitarists like Barney Kessel.

Wes Montgomery Legacy Lives On

Even though success came to Wes quite late in his career, but it was to prove a double-edged sword. Many of my fellow music critics rejected his later recordings with orchestras and string sections as light music lacking in artistic depth, but Wes genuinely enjoyed these projects, seeing them as a fresh and interesting challenge.

When Montgomery died prematurely of a massive heart attack on June 15, 1968 at a young age of 45, he left a remarkable legacy both in great records and in stylistic influence he bequeathed to the generation of guitarists who followed him, including such figures as George Benson, Pat Martino, Pat Metheny, Jim Mullen, Kevin Eubanks, and Stanley Jordan.

In broader terms, the Wes Montgomery: Echoes of Indiana Avenue CD is rich enough for even the most avid jazz fanatic to forgive his more commercial transgressions during the latter part of his career. Wes himself always maintained that his late studio work was pop rather than jazz, and by then he had done more than enough to ensure his ineradicable place in the jazz guitar pantheon.

Danny R. Johnson is San Diego County News’ Jazz and Pop Music Critic.

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