Tag Archives: west

Great Guitarists #7: Wes Montgomery

As we arrive at the final installment of this week-long mini series, there is one Great Guitarist left to feature, and we’re ending on a high. Since I’ve focused this short run of articles on jazz guitar players, it is essential to include the man who has left an indelible influence on how jazz guitar is played…

Wes Montgomery

He played impossible things on the guitar because it was never pointed out to him that they were impossible

– Ronnie Scott

Like the origins of jazz itself, nothing about Montgomery’s career was orthodox. Born John Leslie Montgomery in Indianapolis, 1923, ‘Wes’ only dabbled in music until hearing a Benny Goodman record, aged nineteen. The record in question featured the guitar playing of Charlie Christian (the installment from this series on Charlie Christian can be found here) and inspired Montgomery to buy a guitar the very next day. He spent almost a year learning Christian’s solos, particularly those from the record Solo Flight.

Working as a welder during the day, Montgomery’s guitar practise sessions took place at night, leading to complaints from his neighbours and his wife. His solution was to ditch the pick and pick the guitar’s strings with the dude if his thumb, as this was much quieter. His use of octave playing also comes from this period, as it enabled Montgomery to better hear what he was playing as he practiced. This technique, which Montgomery has said gave him real “headaches” when learning, was relatively rare in guitar playing; following the influence Montgomery left behind, it is now one of the most definitively recognisable characteristics of jazz guitar.

Success didn’t come easy or quick for Montgomery. Although he had started to build his reputation as a guitarist while playing in ensembles with his two brothers, Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano & vibraphone),thete early recordings did not garner much commercial success. In his mid-thirties, Montgomery had returned to working factory shifts during the day, to support his wife and six children, then gigging in jazz clubs until the wee small hours.

This lifestyle ultimately took a toll on his health, but the sheer amount of graft Montgomery was devoting to his playing was paying off. Without being able to read a note of music, Montgomery used his ears and his heart to make his playing swing. His prolific use of octaves, as well as his chord-based soloing (usually on the highest four strings), all without fully understanding the theory of what he played, revolutionised the way in which jazz guitar could be approached and performed.

A chance discovery by saxophonist Cannonball Alderley led to Montgomery being signed to Riverside Records in 1959. Montgomery was soon a rising star, although his more pop-friendly crossover records in the mid-sixties (covers of pop songs, often featuring additional orchestration) led to him being considered a ‘sell out’ by so e jazz musicians. He died of a heart attack while on tour in June 1968,aged just forty-five.

Montgomery’s legacy survives through the countless guitar players he influenced. These include his friend (and another guitarist to experience crossover success) George Benson, Pat Matheny and Earl Klugh, to name only a handful.

Essential Listening

Despite Montgomery’s short recording career, he recorded sixteen LPs as band leader in his lifetime, as well earlier recordings with his brothers as The Mastersounds and a handful of posthumous releases. Smokin’ At The Half Note (1965) is a fantastic live album that I ehie heartedly recommended you give some time to.

For studio cuts, you won’t go wrong with his first few albums with Riverside. A personal favourite is The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960), which includes some of his more well-known pieces such as ‘Four On Six’ and ‘West Coast Blues’.

…And that brings us to the end of this week’s Great Guitarists mini series. I’d love to hear what you guys thought, and what you’d like me to look at in future posts, as I will definitely be bringing this feature back in the future, perhaps focusing on a different genre. I’ll likely post another quick round-up of the last seven installments next week, with a few honourable mentions. I have a few additional thoughts which I have left out of some of these posts, to keep them concise, which I will share with you soon. Until then, keep playing…

Great Guitarists #4: Kenny Burrell

Today we look at the man behind one of my favourite jazz albums of all time…

Kenny Burrell

Kenny Burrell, at the Midnight Blue sessions, 1963

Born in Detroit, Michigan, in 1931, and into a musical family, Burrell has been recording and performing on the guitar since the start of the 1950’s.

Burrell’s recording debut recording was as part of none other than trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie’s sextet in 1951. He started recording solo records almost immediately after, often working in collaboration with other big names in jazz. His discography as band leader is enormous (well over fifty studio cuts). Yet Burrell still found time to work as a sideman for scores of artists, such as Oscar Peterson, Tony Bennett, Billie Holiday, Bill Evans, Wes Montgomery and Benny Goodman (taking the chair once held by his hero Charlie Christian), and many, many more.

His main guitar influences are a mix of jazz (Charlie Christian & Django Reinhardt) and blues (T-Bone Walker & BB King). This blurring of the lines between jazz & blues continued throughout his career, in a style known as Hard Bop (or Soul Jazz). This sub-genre of jazz, of which Burrell is considered a key proponent, is considered by some to be a reaction to the Cool Jazz of the West Coast musicians. His warm tone came from his Gibson Super 400 (a fairly large archtop) combined with failing down the treble on his Fender amplifiers for a ‘fatter’ tone.

One of the reasons I really enjoyed listening to Kenny Burrell when I started learning jazz was how accessible he made the genre sound. His more blues-tinged works (see below) provided an aural link I found familiar as a blues player. However, I soon discovered that his phrasing was as sophisticated and intelligent as the other jazz players – he just made it sound effortless. Making such advanced playing appear so effortless, and therefore more listenable, is one if the traits which makes Burrell a great guitarist!

Essential Listening

It can only be Midnight Blue (1963). I’ve linked to the title track here – a masterclass in laid back, bluesy jazz – but do yourself a favour and spare yourself 45 minutes to enjoy the entire album.

To hear a different side to Burrell’s playing, try Kenny Burrell & John Coltrane, also from 1963. Bebop plays more prominent on this album although Burrell’s tasteful restraint still shines through,and hearing him trade solos with Coltrane feels genuinely seminal. This LP is an underrated album which deserves more attention and acclaim.

I’ll be back with another Great Guitarist tomorrow. Until then, don’t be shy about getting in touch with your thoughts on the series so far, as well as your suggestions for future features. Bye for now!

British Summer Time (BST). The clocks go forward

I’ve not long been back in from tonight’s gig, a wedding down in York’s historic & beautiful city centre, and just noticed that the time on my phone has automatically changed. I’m now an hour further into the future.

2017 is FLYING BY. Already it’s British Summer Time (BST) and the clocks go forward one hour – meaning you lose an hour’s sleep if you’re unfortunate enough to have something scheduled for your Sunday morning.

There’s a debate going on in this country (and indeed many others) about whether or not changing to BST is still as useful as it has been in the past. The main arguments are that it helps the farming community, and makes evenings a little lighter up in northern Scotland (and therefore safer for school children heading home). All I know is I’ll lose an extra hour (spent mainly swearing) attempting to alter the oven clock in the kitchen…

Anyway, time for bed for me, complete with a lie-in! Remember we get our ‘stolen’ hour back in the autumn when we return to Greenwich Mean Time (GMT), but until then, make the most of the hours you have available! x