||Everyone has heros... whether they be family heros, patriotic, medical, historic, sports, military, academic or musical! As a guitar player, I have many guitar heros... a very crowded list, but clearly at the top is Wes Montgomery. Wes' natural talent, creative genius, and "grass roots/organic" approach to playing jazz far exceeded his aspirations of "just being a guitarist". He was a jazz musician who played the guitar, not a guitar player who played jazz. I have listened to Wes for over 50 years and, even though I've heard all his recorded tracks hundreds (if not thousands) of times, with each additional listening I hear something new... something I never "heard" before! His playing always took listeners on a journey of melodic inventiveness and compositional development.... with "twists and turns" in its narrative that were never expected - not unlike experiencing a great novel or exceptional movie.
The genius of Wes Montgomery has fascinated me since the early 1960s when I was a student at the University of North Texas. Wes' recognition as a true titan of jazz had come to the national forefront only a few years earlier in 1959, after the great jazz saxophonist Cannonball Adderley had sung his praises to Riverside Records and beseeched them to sign him to a recording contract. His first release on that label in 1960, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, almost immediately resulted in him becoming the premier guitarist in jazz. While later albums for Verve and A&M were commercially successful, it was the jazz albums at Riverside (and Pacific Jazz) with which he was the most comfortable being identified.
Wes was a natural talent and pure "organic" jazz dynamo. His creative voice spoke through the guitar, but his mindset and self-identity seemed to be solely that of a jazz musician... never showing off "guitaristic flash", idiomatic prowess, or technical "licks" just for the sake of doing so, and was only perceptually concerned with building creative, spontaneous solos. His musical good taste and brilliantly improvised melodies - whether with single notes or octaves - are what has made him a favorite of fans for over 50 years. He "swung" everything he played, yet his ballads were full of sensitivity, emotion and tenderness. Furthermore, the melodic phrasing Wes used was impeccable, always putting a particular note of a melody on exactly the "right" beat for maximum jazz impact... and on just the right part of that beat! He used his love of the blues, sometime very subtlety, in practically everything he played. And Wes was a master at taking a theme, creating motifs from that theme, then pushing the bounds of the song's harmony when developing melodic variations of those motifs, much of the time going "outside" the main structure of the chords and building intricate, unpredictable improvised melodies into choruses that were truly climatic groundswells of musical artistry. He was very infrequently repetitious, seeking to create something new and different every time he performed. He has influenced every jazz guitarist since he burst onto the scene in the late 1950s. Joe Pass often said that the three most important guitarists in jazz history were Django Reinhardt, Charlie Christian, and Wes Montgomery!
Wes never studied music "academically”. He was truly a self-taught, natural, "by-ear" player. Bassist Ray Brown, who knew and performed with Wes, told me that Wes knew very little about chords, anything about the theory of music... or even sometimes in what key he was playing. Nevertheless, Wes broke new ground in jazz guitar playing when he developed astonishing technique using his thumb to play notes, rather than a guitar pick. Additionally, trained guitarists usually are "baffled" at his approach and method for playing up and down the neck, as it seemed to have little or nothing to do with traditional "guitar positions and scales ". Nevertheless, Wes knew where the notes were when he played... and that's all that mattered! On the bandstand in 1961with John Coltrane and Eric Dolphy at the Monterey Jazz Festival, a critic wrote, "Coltrane and Dolphy had intonation trouble throughout the set but both overcame the problem to a certain extent and played some exciting solos, though neither was as moving or as consistent as Montgomery."
Among so many guitarists who loved and were inspired by Wes, I personally can attest he was Joe Pass', Herb Ellis' and Johnny Smith's favorite jazz guitar player. All three, at different times, communicated to me that the reasons for this were Wes' never-ending variety of jazz ideas, unpretentiousness both as a player and person, ability to "swing", sensitive melodic interpretations, octave executions, "shout choruses" of chord improvisations, and mind-boggling facility for cleanly playing anything he wanted at any tempo (again, in spite of that rather "awkward-looking" methodology of playing the guitar!). And his melodic chord solos, while being mostly "block chords", were nonetheless fresh and unique.
Wes struggled making a living as a jazz musician in Indianapolis when he and wife Serene were raising their seven kids. He worked as an "eight to five" welder by day, coming home for dinner and a quick nap before playing in a club from 8 pm to midnight - then in an after hours restaurant/bar until 3 or 4 in the morning. Only someone who overwhelmingly loved his family... and his music, would subject themselves to that kind of grueling schedule! Consequently, he was grateful for commercial success when it came... and the financial security it brought. Nevertheless, he never seemed to completely adjust artistically to the money-making end of the business, always being much more comfortably at home in "straight-ahead" jazz settings, which were certainly less profitable.
The plus side of his commercial achievement was his acceptance amongst a wider audience of pop music fans in the mid-1960s. But jazz critics were less than enthusiastic. A writer for Downbeat magazine quipped, "Now that Montgomery has attained some measure of commercial success, I wonder if he'll ever make another good album." Yet on the other hand, Wes did not always need a "hot" rhythm section's backing to feel good about his music. For instance, another critic for Downbeat magazine wrote of "Fusion", Wes' 1963 album featuring string arrangements orchestrated by Jimmy Jones - "One wishes only that Montgomery, Jones and producer Keepnews had set their sights on loftier heights." Wes responded later by saying, "The first time I recorded with strings, I was very disappointed with the critical comments I got. I don't know what's wrong with these people..... man, unless they feel like music is nothing but hard sounds all the time. I mean, beauty comes in a lot of ways. To me, that was the finest thing I'd done up to that time."
Most guitarists, including myself, will generally work out something to play - sometimes sketchy, sometimes specific - in advance of performing a given tune. Some of the really great guitarists in jazz "lock-in" specific arrangements to execute every time they play a particular song, whether this be a series of specific harmonic voicings when playing a melody with chords, or a basic "sketch" of how to effectively improvise melodies within a jazz solo - either with the aid of scales, various modes, tried and true melodic phrases, or arpeggios. This process is usually accomplished by a studied overview of music and an academic understanding of chord spelling and progressions; as well as defining a cerebral map of locations as to where notes lay on the fret board as they relate to given chords. Also, another handy device is having an arsenal of "idiomatic melodic passages" to draw upon that "work" and can therefore be superimposed within sections of the song's chord changes. Obviously all these elements have to be available instantaneously, as they are all executed "on the fly". Furthermore, within every level of proficiency in jazz performance, musicians almost always have an innate ability to know what can "safely" be played, what will "work", or not work as an improvisation unfurls. It seems that Wes Montgomery might have been a natural antipathy of these concerns and wasn't the least-bit apprehensive, or preoccupied, about what was "safe" or not..... as is usually the case with most creative giants.
According to Joe Pass, Wes never worked anything out in advance of what he was going to play. He was a true purist when it came to improvising. He wasn't limited to thinking of G, Bb, D and F, or even the Dorian Mode, as he was playing through a ii chord in the key of F. He constantly was pushing the envelope elsewhere... going out on melodic limbs that seemed implausible, yet always resolving these brazen excursions in a truly musical, but unpredictable way. Simply said, he just played what he heard inside his head!
Wes has been quoted many times as saying that he did not practice, that what he played came basically from the spur of the moment. After years of listening to him, I feel that when he started an improvised jazz solo, he would play a note - whether it would necessarily be within the basic harmony or not - and then build improvisational melodic ideas and variations by free association from that note... to another note... to another note sequenceally as to how he heard that ad-libed melody unfolding inside his consciousness... and not generally from a specific organization of pitches learned through a prescribed scale, finger position on the neck, or mode. Possibly this is the result of his playing so fluently with octaves, as in doing so, "notes" relating to harmonic structures become more important where they lay on the neck than do "positions". This is not to say he didn't have favorite "places" to go when starting a single-note solo, only that those places were uniquely Wes Montgomery!
It probably goes without saying that making a "tribute album" is extremely tenuous and difficult. In doing so, one tries to capture the essence of an artist and salute their genius without giving impressions, or even being judged, as attempting to be an imitation or "clone" of him or her. In Las Vegas shows, "tribute" means completely imitating and copying... style, looks, sound, mannerisms, everything about the artist. In reality, these type tributes are for the commercial gain of casino venues, as well as career advancements for the person doing the imitating... and who therefore is hanging onto the coattails of the artist's celebrity.
From the very inception of my idea to produce this project, my rational has been that when recording my guitar tracks, I would try to get as close to Wes' philosophy of playing as possible. Other than the harmonic voicings I used on two songs where I played the melody with chords (which I did work out in advance), I purposely did not prepare anything else before recording.... no specific ways to phrase or play a melody, no planned routes through the song's harmony with "personally-familiar licks", scales or other specialized techniques of navigating the song's chord changes (although I'm sure my jazz solos might have benefited had I done so). Additionally, I tried to capture the emotional content of the melody - something Wes always did! Recording this way brought me closer to the core of who Wes Montgomery was as an artist.
Even though I can never rise to Wes' level of facility, creativity or genius, I have, and always will learn from him. It therefore is important for me, especially in this album, to try to encapsulate his mindset, the core of his legacy, his approach to playing, and the spirit of who he was as a musician.... and then interpret these qualities though my own musical voice, instincts and performance. As far as using octaves, if I were going to honor his playing, they had to be a part of mine as well. And I played everything with my thumb, which I've done for close to two decades. The concept of playing this way was suggested to me many years ago by Herb Ellis, who told me, "play with your thumb... it'll slow you down and make you play more meaningful music and not just a bunch of fast notes!"
The arrangements and orchestrations that I did for these two CDs are meant to pay tribute to some of my arranging heros: Claus Ogerman, Robert Farnon, Johnny Mandel, Nelson Riddle, Michel Legrand, Jimmy Jones, Peter Matz, Richard Rodney Bennett, Don Sebesky, Pat Williams, Oliver Nelson, Don Costa.... just to name a very few.
Wes always seemed to select great ballads for his jazz albums or live performances. I hope this group of 19 songs - which have been associated with him, gives the listener insight into my respect and admiration for not only Wes Montgomery, but also the many composers and lyricists who contributed these magnificent songs to the Great American Songbook's repertoire and, again, for the work of the great arrangers and orchestrators who have given so much to American jazz.... and American music!
-Tom Bruner, August 2017
** Some of the quotations used in these liner notes came from the Biography of Wes Montgomery by Adrian Ingram and published by Ashley Mark Publishing Co.