Jazz Guitar Today contributor Marc Silver reflects on seeing Wes Montgomery perform in a small club in 1968 – an unforgettable experience.
The year was 1968, I was just 14 years old but I remember it vividly. I had only been playing guitar for three years when I decided to make the move from being the lead guitarist in a local rock band on the path to superstardom, to being an aspiring jazz guitarist destined for artistic anonymity. To start down the road of learning how to improvise, I took some lessons from a local jazz guitarist who turned me onto great players such as Kenny Burrell, Wes Montgomery, Jim Hall, George Benson, and Pat Martino. It didn’t take long for me to get hooked on that classic heavy-gauge, flat-wound tone that was so prevalent with jazz guitarists of that time.
There is a famous jazz club in my hometown of Detroit called Baker’s Keyboard Lounge. Today it’s still an active, vibrant club for the local jazz scene, but in the 50s, 60s, and 70s, Baker’s hosted all of the major jazz artists who came through Detroit. And I mean everyone who was anyone.
My first experience at Baker’s was early in 1968. After much begging on my part, I convinced my father to take me there to see Wes Montgomery. That experience is forever etched into my psyche.
Baker’s is a fairly small club, so everyone in the audience is close to the stage and the players. Before coming onstage, Wes left his guitar sitting upright on a chair, right in front of where I was sitting. I walked up to his single-pickup Gibson L5 in awe, afraid to touch it but close enough to do so had I been brave enough (or stupid enough). Wes played several L5s over the years… this was the one that had the black sticker on the cutaway bout with his name in big white letters. I also remember he was plugged into a great-sounding Standel amp.
Sadly, Wes died suddenly a few months later in June of 1968. The news of his passing sent a shockwave throughout the jazz guitar community.
There was a flurry of new compositions dedicated to Wes, and also a flurry of imitators hoping to take up the master’s mantle. That was never going to happen. There was only one Wes Montgomery. 50 plus years later there are still imitators, but only one original. Even though his recording career was short (only nine years), he left a musical legacy that still challenges any improvising guitarist looking to play with a sense of compositional beauty.
When I first started listening to Wes, it was his later, more commercial recordings where he was primarily playing octave melodies and solos. Occasionally a song would have a single-note solo that would go somewhere only Wes could go. He didn’t play the typical guitar clichés that every guitarist plays.
His sense of melody, harmony, and rhythm was, and still is, unlike any other guitar player.
If you ever saw him play, you could see he was utterly relaxed. He was having fun, and if you were there… so were you. I had to work my way back chronologically to his quartet and trio albums where he was really stretching out during his solos.
Below are a few of my favorite Wes Montgomery tracks (and why):
Impressions (originally from Willow Weep for Me, recorded live at The Half Note) – For me, this is the quintessential live Wes solo that showcases the best of his single-note, octave, and chord soloing in this up-tempo Coltrane classic. Toward the end of the solo you can even hear Wes laughing he is having so much fun.
Four on Six (from Smokin’ at the Half Note) – This is a classic Wes Montgomery composition from a classic Wes album. In addition to yet another impeccable single-line solo, he also plays octaves effortlessly through a series of rapid key changes.
Caravan (from Movin’ Wes) – This is another up-tempo tune that features an incredible single-note solo at a speed no thumb can go… except for Wes.
Bumpin’ on Sunset (from Tequila) – No pyrotechnics on this tune… just one long, slow octave, double-octave, and chordal improvisation in A minor. Simple, but incredibly well-constructed, this has been in my personal repertoire (note-for-note) since I was 15 years old.
Round Midnight (Live at the BBC Studios – London 1965)
Tear it Down (from Bumpin’)
Sundown (from California Dreaming)
OGD aka Road Song (originally from Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes)
Angel (from A Day in the Life)
James and Wes (from The Dynamic Duo with Jimmy Smith)
This article was previously published by Jazz Guitar Today on Dec 1, 2018. JGT thought Marc’s story was worth revisiting.
Marc Silver is a guitarist, composer, and author, best known for writing the classic instruction book Contemporary Guitar Improvisation (Utilizing the Entire Fingerboard), which has been teaching guitar players around the world how to improvise since 1978. Visit online at MarcSilverGuitarImprov.com
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