Ask a dozen jazz guitar fans for their all-time top guitar albums and The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery
is likely to be high on every list. If it isn't, chances are Montgomery's live set Full House
(Riverside, 1962), recorded two years later, will be. With these discs, Indianapolis-born Montgomery (1923-68) gave the guitar its biggest quantum leaps forward, both stylistically and in terms of listener acceptance, since Charlie Christian
in the late 1930s/early 1940s and Johnny Smith
in the 1950s. Full House
got the 24-bit remastering treatment in 2007 as part of Riverside's Keepnews Collection series, supervised and annotated by label founder/producer Orrin Keepnews. Now The Incredible Jazz Guitar
Almost entirely self-taught (initially by immersing himself in Christian's recordings with clarinetist Benny Goodman's chamber groups), and unable to read a note of music, by 1959when he was brought to Keepnews' attention by saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who'd been gigging in IndianapolisMontgomery had developed a revolutionary new approach to the instrument. His style featured three signature elements: he played with his thumb, never a pick, and he improvised entire choruses using either octaves or pianistic block chords. None of these techniques were unique, but until Montgomery came along no other guitarist had mastered them so completely (let alone combined them) or made them so integral to sound and improvisation. An exception is Smith, whose Moonlight in Vermont (Roulette, 1953) and later albums featured extended passages of block chording as beautiful and fluid as Montgomery's.
The Incredible Jazz Guitar burst onto the US scene in 1960 like a benign hurricane, and it still sounds like a gale almost 50 years later. Over four bluesy originals, the standards "Polka Dots And Moonbeams" and "Gone With The Wind," Dave Brubeck's gorgeous "In Your Own Sweet Way" and a fast-paced reading of Sonny Rollins' "Airegin," Montgomeryempathetically accompanied by pianist Tommy Flanagan, bassist Percy Heath (then riding high with the Modern Jazz Quartet), and drummer Albert Heathmakes the guitar sound like it never had before. It has sounded similar since, of course, thanks to the legion of Montgomery-influenced players, but rarely so close to perfection.
In his revealing new extended liner notes, Keepnews, born within a few days of Montgomery and at 85 a fluent anecdotal historian, paints a vivid portrait of Montgomery as a musician and as a private person. He expresses some regret that he was unable to give Montgomery the big mainstream audience he achieved with producer Creed Taylor on Verve and CTI 1964-68 (but is proud that Montgomery's Riverside recordings made no attempt at pop crossover)and some embarrassment over the lack of alternate takes or bonus tracks (the reissued Full House by contrast had both), recalling the many Riverside archive tape boxes he's come across with the original data crossed out and supplanted by something later. But he doesn't beat himself up about it, and nor should he. At 43:58 divine minutes, The Incredible Jazz Guitar endures, and will continue to do so.