Wes Montgomery was puzzled. Like most leading jazz musicians in 1965, the guitarist didn't think much of the pop-chart scene. Many top jazz artists felt the music was painfully repetitious and that many lousy musicians were making a lot of fast money. Geared to the kid market, the music, jazz musicians felt, lacked substance. Hence, jazz musicians who covered the stuff sounding like silly sell-outs. So when Verve producer Creed Taylor turned up at Montgomery's gig at New York's Half Note in September 1965 and played him Little Anthony & the Imperials' Goin' Out of My Head, Montgomery scoffed. “Creed, you must be going out of your head. I can’t do that kind of stuff."
Months Montgomery left for Europe on his first tour. Backing the guitarist in the early spring of '65 was pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Arthur Harper, drummer Jimmy Lovelace and special guest Johnny Griffin. On March 27, the group appeared a the Théâtre des Champs Elysées in Paris. For years, their performance was available only as a bootleg. Now, Resonance Records has remixed and reissued a clean, warm version in cooperation with the Montgomery estate. The result is a stunning two-CD set, Wes Montgomery: In Paris, the Definitive ORTF Recording.
ORTF stands for the Office of French Radio and Television, which archives recordings of American jazz artists who performed there. The Montgomery material was among the listings producer Zev Feldman noticed while working on another project ith the OFRT. Upon request, Zev and Resonance's George Klabin were given the green light to restore the tapes.
The results are spectacular. The out-of-studio energy, speed and and swing of the Montgomery group are stunning on songs such as Four on Six, Impressions, To Wane, Jingles and others. And there's lots of heart on the ballads, such as The Girl Next Door and here's That Rainy Day. The Johnny Griffin tracks—Full House, 'Round Midnight and Blue 'n Boogie/West Coast Blues—have a harder sound, with Griffin wailing away. A different mood from the quartet tracks but still worth a listen. [Photo above of Wes Montgomery in Paris by Jean-Pierre Leloir, courtesy of Resonance Records]
This set is a fantastic addition to the Wes Montgomery canon and shows us how much more muscular and spirited he was on guitar in a live setting than when harnessed in the studio.
Getting back to that meeting between Creed and Montgomery at the Half Note, let me have Creed pick up the story from my interview with the legendary producer: I said, 'Listen to the chord changes and the melody, and you’ll find there’s something there that’s going to be very useful for you in a recording studio.' I also told Wes that Oliver Nelson was arranging and that he already had the chart in his head. 'Forget the vocal and performance,' I told Wes. 'Listen to the changes.' That was the only time I had to talk to Wes in a somewhat uncomfortable situation."
In November '65, Montgomery recorded the album, Goin' Out of My Head, for Creed, with Oliver Nelson's arrangements. This would be the start of Montgomery pioneering the pop chart at Verve and CTI, and turning transistor-radio hits into hip adult contemporary jazz classics. Just before he did, he was showing his stuff to European audiences.