During the last few years of John Leslie “Wes” Montgomery’s life, he had climbed to the very top, with a Grammy Award for the Creed Taylor produced “Goin’ Out Of My Head” in 1966, which not only sat at no.1 on the Jazz charts but also flew up what we would now term pop charts. In 1967 “A Day in the Life” topped the Billboard Jazz charts and reached no.2 on the ‘pop’ charts. These ‘pop’ successes were not his preferred choices it would seem, as much is documented of his avoidance to play these songs live. Wes had switched to playing electric guitar at the age of 20 on hearing recordings of Charlie Christian – Jazz critic Ralph Gleason would later write “Wes Montgomery is the best thing to happen to the guitar since Charlie Christian” – moving away from the use of the customary pick, which had enraged the domestic authorities, for a subtle revolutionary thumb technique that would prove to garner the reputation and public appreciation firmly stamped in jazz history. Wes Montgomery was praised for mastering his octaves and harmonies with some 20+ albums as leader and is quite possibly the most recognised modern jazz guitarist of all time. Down Beat Poll Winner for consecutive years and a no.1 slot in Billboard for ‘California Dreaming’ in August 1967.
Just prior to those accolades these 1965 NDR Hamburg Studio Recordings are presented here with 10 songs before a live audience on April 30, and a further 5 during rehearsals filmed on April 28, featured on the enclosed 34min Blu-Ray disc – an insightful snapshot of interplay during band rehearsals at a key moment in their respective careers. The line-up consists of American’s Wes Montgomery (g) and Johnny Griffin – Griffin (ts) had previously worked with Wes and his brothers Monk and Buddy – Britain’s Ronnie Stephenson (ds), Ronnie Ross (bs) and Ronnie Scott (ts) – Michael Laages’ sleeve notes nod to the highly likely chance that these four may have travelled together after performing at Soho’s Ronnie Scott’s club, Austrian saxophonist Hans Koller – who had previously worked with Ronnie Ross and here featured on alto, not tenor (unlike the ‘Live In Europe’ recording from the same period), pianist Martial Solal and bassman Michel Gaudry (of Serge Gainsbourg fame) from France.
Proceedings swing in with Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues”, a no-frills jaunt full of European nuances. It’s short and the audience is responsive. “Four On Six” settles in with strong rhythms by the leader out front with little notable excitement from the band until pianist Martial Solal takes flight. There’s a bass solo by Michel Gaudry with warm reception before Wes resumes control atop Ronnie Stephenson’s drum work. Early on in this set, you are aware of the superb quality of the recording and faultless dynamics. “Last Of The Wine” permits Ronnie Ross space to fly on baritone – this is mind-blowing stuff – as the leader sits back ahead of his solo. This is now proving to be an illuminating set even before Johnny Griffin charges forward on his tenor saxophone but to these ears, it is Solal’s fingers that reign supreme. The longest piece, “Heres That Rainy Day”, strolls along with little excitement and is disappointing by comparison.
“Opening 2”, by contrast, is a frolicking bop explosion of brass section and energy that ignites side B. Penned by Martial Solal this has a very different feel to the Montgomery compositions with its feel-good swing being a hard to fault piece – not a lot of Wes going on though! “Blue Grass” readdresses with more Wes (on Gibson?) in the frame as saxes compete for the podium. What a joy the ears of German radio would have first delighted in 1965 as the energy throughout is compelling. Remember, Montgomery’s “The Paris Session” had only been recorded the month before. He was prolific and even when working with unfamiliar musicians does not flinch or hinder the musical outcome. “Blue Monk” is 7th on the set-list and, dare I say it, those Martial Solal chords are out-there with more spontaneity through the piece. Cue applause. “The Leopard Walks” with its big band feel, drifts off soulfully and ‘safe’ with Johnny Griffin leading his own tune throughout before “Twisted Blues” by Montgomery picks up the six-string pace, rubber-stamping the Wes Montgomery ‘sound’ as the end is almost upon us. The energy is at full-pelt before we close with “West Coast Blues (Encore)”.
There is everything here one would need from a Wes Montgomery album. The addition of these specific band members is further rewarding and continues to support the importance of the NDR (Norddeutscher Rundfunk) studios and their remit, which records show recorded between 1958-1988. “The strategy was to bring together musicians, who usually did not – or only rarely – perform together and to broadcast the results” through organiser/producer Hans Gertberg and engineer Hans-Heinrich Breitkreuz is as important to the story of jazz as any American label. In fact, NDR regular Hans Koller would join Ronnie Ross and Ronnie Stephenson for a return to the NDR studios in July with Tubby Hayes. The quality of this mastering is wonderfully evident on the 180g disc resulting in a quality 1965 recording sounding crisp and exciting in 2021.
Deliberately setting aside the additional Blu-Ray disc, as not to confuse first impressions, it now provides further delight watching the rehearsal. With a combination of cigarette smoking, Ronnie Scott’s beacon of enthusiasm, a perched Wes and pure fire from Martial Solal, we are centre-stage at history being made, and with vibraphone pushed to one side, I can’t help but grin at the idea that very soon Tubby Hayes could be mallets in hand. The inclusion of the footage for this release is priceless.
On May 22, 1968, Wes would perform with his quintet at the Coliseum in his home town of Indianapolis and would soon die at home of a sudden heart attack. His funeral service was conducted three days later by Rev. John J. Crook. His “Down Here On The Ground” would top the best selling Jazz LP chart at Billboard in August and would posthumously win a further Grammy Award in 1969 for “Willow Weep For Me” and be responsible for recording sufficient music to see a further string of wonderful releases via the Milestone, Capitol, Resonance and now Jazzline Classics labels, a clear indication of the demand still for his music, “after all, Wes is the hero of the day on guitar” wrote Record World’s Ted Williams in March 1968, “And the Wes Montgomery story is just beginning.” A sad note to end on…
Wes Montgomery ‘Back on Indiana Avenue: The Carroll DeCamp Recordings’ 2LP-RSD/2CD (Resonance) 4/5
Wes Montgomery ‘In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording’ 2CD (Resonance) 5/5
Wynton Kelly Trio with Wes Montgomery ‘Smokin’ in Seattle’ 180g LP/CD (Resonance) 4/5