Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Influences and Inspirations: Wes Montgomery

March 6 - Happy birthday, Wes Montgomery.

I came late to  Wes Montgomery. I was influenced by those who followed him long before I ever actually got into the man himself. I  have loved jazz all my life, but only in the last decade have I truly tried to play it and feel it. To do that, I realized that an appreciation for Wes is essential. He directly influenced such greats as George Benson, Grant Green, Pat Martino, Allan Holdsworth and Lee Ritenour. Pat Metheny has said "I learned to play listening to Wes Montgomery's Smokin at the Half Note." Even amongst his contemporaries, which included such talented guitarists as Johnny Smith, Jimmy Raney,Tal Farlow, Herb Ellis, Barney Kessel and Kenny Burrell, Wes was recognized as something special. Fellow guitarist Joe Pass referred to him as one of only three real innovators on the guitar, the others being Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt.

If these names are new to you, consider this an invitation to explore the amazing world of jazz guitar. Go and start listening to some music by every one of these greats. But start and end with Wes. Why?

Why do guitarists as diverse as Jimi Hendrix, Carlos Santana and Eric Johnson feel such a strong influence from him? Why did Frank Zappa say, "If you want to learn how to play guitar, listen to Wes Montgomery."

The year 1960 was when he first came to public attention, but he was no newcomer. Indeed he was almost 40 years old and had been playing for years before he hit the big time. After a brief run with Lionel Hampton in the late 1940's Wes had been toiling in obscurity in Indianapolis, working a day job, raising a family, and gigging three or four nights a week at local clubs. It takes passionate commitment to voluntarily stay out until 2 in the morning playing club dates, night after night, knowing you will go home, get four hours sleep and then get up and go to your day job. But Wes was not just surviving during this time, he was thriving, growing, maturing. He was developing an amazing technique and a style all his own. Clearly Wes loved what he was doing and was utterly devoted to his music. Watch the short clip below for some great insight into how, in spite of the indignities of segregation, Indianapolis provided a nurturing environment for Wes, a safe haven for him to allow his talent to grow and blossom.

So put on "The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery" and listen. Get past the relatively primitive recording quality and picture the scene. Wes shows up at the studio with a group of musicians, they set up their gear, the producer puts some microphones around, and a few hours later, the record is done. This is the sound of jazz records of the time. You get a sense of being there, hearing exactly what happened on that day: the sound of real people playing music. The tape recorder was just like the fly on the wall, eavesdropping on the moment. There was no studio trickery or post-production magic to sweeten the sound; what they played that day was what went on the record. And what went down that day was so good, it is still considered one of the greatest jazz guitar albums of all time.

Every time I return to Wes, I still marvel at his command of jazz vocabulary, his impeccable rhythmic precision, and his endless melodic inventiveness. On top of all that, there is his tremendous sense of swing, and a laid back, relaxed feeling that underlies everything. He infuses his playing with his unique character - a gentle, fun, relaxed quality that balances out the thoughtful, intense nature that overtakes a lot of jazz.

Then there's the thumb. Watch some video and try to get your mind around how he accomplishes all that with only the thumb of his right hand ever striking the strings.

Wes had the whole package: technical mastery and musical depth, all wrapped up in a warm inviting package that jazz critic Stanley Crouch referred to as "the true welcome." Music has never been more true, or more welcoming, than it was with Wes.

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