Wes and Ella: New VMEs

David Rickert By

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Wes Montgomery
Smokin' At the Half Note

Once Wes Montgomery signed with the Verve label, he didn't record much jazz. His last recordings were designed to generate hits rather than to showcase one of the most inventive and influential soloists in jazz. But records like Smokin' At the Half Note from 1965 feature Montgomery at the top of his game. Not only does this recording register high on the Richter scale, it's also one of the best jazz guitar records ever made.

The title is a bit of a misnomer, for the original release featured two live recordings and three studio recordings. However, both settings feature Wes at his octave- playing best. There's a lot to admire in Montgomery's style, from the way he can dodge blues clichés on the twelve-minute "No Blues to the seductive way he uses octaves on ballads like "If You Could See Me Now. He is also a master of phrasing, crafting melodic phrases and variations that keep the engine loaded with coal.

It certainly helps that he has pros behind him in Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers, and Jimmy Cobb, a group that Miles Davis sculpted into a top-notch rhythm section a few years back. All three seem invigorated by Montgomery's desire to let it all hang out on the bandstand; at one point, Kelly lays out to watch Montgomery tear through a few bars of "No Blues.

The biggest bonus is the alternate takes, live recordings that were originally released posthumously as Willow Weep For Me, a Grammy winning album. Claus Ogerman overdubbed strings and horns on the selections, which only proved to be a distraction; here, they are stripped down to the originals and are all the better for it. A blistering run-through of Coltrane's "Impressions is one of Montgomery's best performances and demonstrates that he had added modal playing into his arsenal.

While most of his contemporaries hopped on the soul jazz train, Montgomery stuck with the blues and standards that made his Riverside recordings such a treat. Live At the Half Note is the last album from Wes before he chased after pop stardom, unfortunately creating the template for smooth jazz along the way. Don't blame Wes for the piffle his followers churned out after his death; Montgomery deserves to be remembered for the sheer genius documented here.

Ella Fitzgerald
Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Song Book

With the Song Book series, Ella was on top of the world. Producer Norman Granz had a keen awareness of her bravado and sophistication and how best to present it, and under his supervision Ella hit an audience eager for the stylish singing of a female Sinatra. Working through the songbooks of well-known composers and backed by gifted arrangers, Ella crafted a gold standard for jazz singing and crafted great album after great album.

The fact that the Jerome Kern record, released in 1963, is a bit of a letdown isn't meant to be a criticism. The same team of Granz, Ella, and arranger Nelson Riddle had created a masterpiece using the Gershwin songbook that they couldn't possibly hope to match. That being said, this album is still very appealing. Songs like "A Fine Romance and "I'm Old Fashioned suit Ella's exuberance perfectly and "All the Things You Are gives her the opportunity to display her wide range. Only "The Way You Look Tonight fails to ignite, simply because today, it's been sung way too many times. Riddle once again shows how the perfect arrangement can enhance a vocal performance. As always, he shows a keen ear for dynamics, never overwhelming Ella with too much brass (Sinatra could handle it better than she could).

The Jerome Kern Song Book is the seventh entry in the series, and by this time Ella was capable of drawing a crowd wherever she went. Many of the Song Book series are double albums or more; at a single CD, this is a good place to start for the uninitiated.

Wes Montgomery - Smokin' At the Half Note
Tracks: 1. No Blues 2. If You Could See Me Now 3. Unit 7 4. Four On Six 5. What's New? 6. Willow Weep For Me 7. Portrait Of Jennie 8. Surrey With the Fringe On Top 9. Oh, You Crazy Moon 10. Misty 11. Impressions.
Personnel: Wes Montgomery — guitar; Wynton Kelly — piano; Paul Chambers — bass; Jimmy Cobb — drums.

Ella Fitzgerald Sings the Jerome Kern Song Book
Tracks: 1. Let's Begin 2. A Fine Romance 3. All the Things You Are 4. I'll Be Hard To Handle 5. You Couldn't Be Cuter 6. She Didn't Say "Yes 7. I'm Old Fashioned 8. Remind Me 9. The Way You Look Tonight 10. Yesterdays 11. Can't Help Lovin' Dat Man 12. Why Was I Born?
Personnel: Ella Fitzgerald — vocal; with Nelson Riddle's Orchestra.


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