The writer and jazz critic Alain Gerber nicknamed him ‘the calm guy’.
I was 12 years old. At the time I knew the majority of the Beatles’ discography by heart, I danced to Africando, and Sonic Youth and Richard Bona lived in me, amongst others. I recorded everything I could get my hands on in my uncle’s enormous music library onto cassette tapes – something of a cliché perhaps, although we never discussed our shared passion for ‘his’ music.
I don’t know if it started with a CD or a vinyl, an album or a compilation. I don’t even remember what the cover looked like. I was 12 and it was a hot afternoon. In my room I pressed play and...ta-ta-ta-taaam. Mi-la-do-miiii. A guitar, an instrumental. I listened to every note. There was something in the air, a sense of lightness. And then, adrenaline. What is this? I started to dance. I started to sing the notes I didn’t yet know. Bumpin’ on Sunset. I didn’t even know it was jazz. I liked it. I loved it!
And that was it. The guitarist’s playing was sunny, warm, lucid. The articulation was crystal clear. I still had no idea that I was listening to Wes Montgomery, one of the greatest guitarists in the history of jazz, who’s career more or less kicked off with Lionel Hampton and Freddie Hubbard. I didn’t know that the 1966 track, released just 2 years before his untimely death, was recorded in Rudy Van Gelder’s studios in New Jersey for the album Tequila (on Verve Records). Many people hate this piece. It is not much sought after; considered too simple – some even say its awful. It’s smooth, it’s pop. I love it.
This is my ‘Proust’s madeleine – something that immediately provokes reminiscences of time’s past. I love it because it taught me to listen to jazz. It’s as if Wes was preparing the ground for me with his unadorned phrasing. His diligence. Elegance. Whatever the arrangement, his technique is astonishing. Self-taught (and therefore removed from any aesthetic loyalty that might have divided him) his consistency – from the time when, for Pacific Jazz, he juggled swing, bop and blues with his brothers Monk and Buddy (The Montgomery Brothers), to his final ‘smooth jazz’ releases on A&M Records – is incredible.
The best of Wes? Most of the family recordings (The Montgomery Brothers in Canada, and Groove Yard released in ‘61 are absolute musts) as well as the recordings released on Riverside between 1958 and 1964 – particularly the sublime The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960) and Full House (1962) as well as one of my favourites, The Alternative Wes Montgomery (1963). Listen to Four On Six, West Coast Blues, and Fried Pies in the sunshine. And what about his recordings with one of bebop’s great artisans, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, like Bags Meets Wes (1962). A delight.
From his first album with Verve Records, Movin’ Wes, Montgomery slowly developed the pop sounds that would define his later recordings. He also made albums with organist Jimmy Smith and pianist Wynton Kelly. Once I’d learned a little more about jazz, and I’d realised that I loved the latter’s eponymous albums even more than Bumpin’ on Sunset or Wes’ impro on “Moca Flor”, I realised that Wes had given me the keys to the door to a universe that has been my passion ever since. I’ll say it again – he did the ground work! Because between Bumpin’ On Sunset and T&T by Ornette Coleman, you’ve got it all!
Oh, I nearly forgot! In my opinion, Wes Montgomery’s version of “Impressions” by John Coltrane is the absolute best in the world. Another must. Listen and indulge…