This remastered, expanded edition of the classic 1965 Wes Montgomery-Wynton Kelly Trio session is essentially an economy-priced version of the import The Complete Live at the Half Note. If you have the original Smokin' at the Half Note and are not a Wes completist intent on picking up the six extra tunes (expendable, with the exception of "Impressions"), the audio quality of this version is not sufficiently superior, in my opinion, to justify purchase. Still, it's reassuring to see that Montgomery's popularity continues to be supported by new editions of his work.
Montgomery did not receive widespread public recognition until he was 35, and he was barely 44 when he died. Still, it's unlikely that any other guitarist (including Charlie Christian and Django Reinhardt) has had a greater impact in the history of this music. By the time he had moved on from Riverside to this session for Verve, he had little to prove to musicians and was beginning to accept more accessible popular assignments that would broaden his appeal to the general public. Smokin', although it lacks any tunes as challenging as "Airegin" (The Incredible Guitar Artistry of), can stand alongside his Riverside work as an example of creative, inspired playing. And the presence of pianist Wyn Kelly, along with bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, definitely raises the swing factor a notch.
What sets Montgomery apart from the field is not pyrotechnical legerdemain or bold innovation, but every "little" thing that he does so well so effortlessly so much of the time. The sound he gets out of the instrument is of itself a marvel. It has a deep and meaty, utterly natural resonance, almost as if the tone is doubling itself, suggestive less of other guitarists than of Bird and Clifford Brown. Additionally, there's never a microsecond of doubt in his playing or solo constructions. Nothing is tentativein terms of notes, phrases, or choruses. It's all so completely lyrical and logical that the listener's biggest challenge can be not to take it for granted.
His solo on Sam Jones' "Unit 7" might serve as a touchstone to all of his playing. He starts with inventive single note melodic ideas, then moves to octaves without the faintest suggestion of slowing down to accommodate the extra notes, then finally kicks it into high gear with a fully chorded "out" chorus that feels as forceful as a shout chorus by the whole Count Basie Band.
I never caught Wes Montgomery live, but I've heard that visually he was the mirror image of his musicefficient, composed, resourcefulwithout the least hint of wasted motion, just like Bird and Tatum. Genius requires a level of concentration that the rest of us probably have little to no experience with. Wes Montgomery is one of those artists who can take the listener beyond the music, offering a glimpse of the creative process itself as practiced by a true master.
Personnel: Wes Montgomery, guitar; Wynton Kelly, piano; Paul Chambers, bass; Jimmy Cobb, drums