Wes Montgomery was known as ‘the man with the golden thumb’, who exploded onto the jazz scene like a meteor out of no-where in the 1950’s, whose sound was unique, because in addition to the warm amplification employed by many jazz guitarists of the era, Montgomery used his thumb to play the chords, and notes, an approach he developed as a way of trying not to annoy his neighbours.
Montgomery’s technique had a melodiousness to it that made him popular amongst record labels, because being accessible was just as important as innovation. The Incredible Jazz Guitar of was arguably the guitarist’s first landmark recording, as least from a solo perspective. Recorded in New York City at Reeves Sound Studios with the Tommy Flanagan Trio, which included Tommy Flanagan himself (piano), and brothers Percy Heath (bass) and Albert Heath (drums), Montgomery plays the electric jazz guitar like it had never been played before.
Of the eight tracks here, half of them are Montgomery originals. “D-Natural Blues” has classic stamped all over it, where Flanagan establishes himself as a perfect foil for Wes’ laid back expression. Of his other compositions, “Four on Six”, with its ostinato bass and modal harmonies has since become something of a standard, while on “West Coast Blues” Montgomery takes standard 12 bar blues and alters the chords to 3/4, thus giving it a whole new dimension. His other composition, “Mr Walker” is a Latin oriented number proving that Wes was far more versatile than some people might have given him credit for.
The nervous Bop of Sonny Rollins’ “Airegin” is a fine interpretation, where both Montgomery and Flanagan are in complete simpatico with one another, as they also are on the exquisite ‘think I’ll have one more smoke before I go to bed’ “Polka Dots and Moonbeams”. Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” receives an absolutely delicious rendering. Once again both Flanagan and Montgomery outdo each other in the complimentary stakes, with playing that is as soft as moonlight over a New York skyline. We close with the melodically easy going “Gone With the Wind”, which swings along in true Montgomery style.
The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, with its eclectic mix of styles, remains not only one of the guitarists’ most accomplished albums, but his most influential. So significant in fact was his contribution to the development of jazz guitar in general, that nowadays such innovations made then are often taken for granted today.
Sadly Wes Montgomery passed away in 1968 at age 43. During his last few years his albums became increasingly commercial, although at least he lived long enough to witness the beginnings of the newly emerging jazz-rock movement, one that included the wide use of improvisation, and the seemingly wild and untamed sounds of the electric guitar, a la Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, with their stack of Marshall amps and heavy distortion.
Whether Wes himself may have expanded on his technique and experimented with technology along the lines of George Benson in the 1970’s is perhaps unlikely, considering his penchant for sophisticated understatement – which doesn’t really matter, since the man’s style was already perfect to begin with.