In Paris Recording, Guitarist Wes Montgomery Shows His Head For Melody

Jan 31, 2018
Originally published on February 1, 2018 12:02 pm
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Wes Montgomery was one of the most famous jazz and pop guitar players ever. Our jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says Montgomery was a virtuoso with a good head for melody. A new reissue catches Montgomery's quartet on the guitarist's only European tour.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "JINGLES")

KEVIN WHITHEAD, BYLINE: That's from the double album "Wes Montgomery In Paris: The Definitive ORTF Recording," part of Resonance Records' Montgomery archival series. This 1965 concert caught for French radio has been bootlegged a few times in various forms, but this crisp edition was mastered from the original tapes. And as usual, Resonance pays the musicians or their survivors.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "JINGLES")

WHITEHEAD: The guitarist is in fine form and in thrall to the splashy modal jazz John Coltrane made popular in the '60s, with longer improvisations over fewer records. Wes Montgomery even tackles Coltrane's blowing tune "Impressions." As ever, he'll play lines in parallel octaves for a sleek, clean, irresistible sound.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "IMPRESSIONS")

WHITEHEAD: Wes Montgomery didn't just have a great sound. He'd weave complex variations around melodic figures that might start out simple and catchy as a children's song. The complications were always elegant. And somehow, he picked all that fancy stuff, sweeping the strings with his bare right thumb. This is from the same solo.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "IMPRESSIONS")

WHITEHEAD: Wes Montgomery in 1965 with drummer Jimmy Lovelace and bassist Arthur Harper - all those sparkling guitar runs and octaves prop pianist Harold Mabern to trot out some ringing octaves of his own. That's on Montgomery's "4 On 6," where you can hear that Coltrane influence.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "4 ON 6")

WHITEHEAD: Sometimes Harold Mabern shadows Wes Montgomery so closely, piano almost sounds like another neck on Wes' guitar. After playing with Montgomery a little while, the pianist knew his pet rhythms and would lock right in.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "BLUE AND BOOGIE/WEST COAST BLUES")

WHITEHEAD: Sitting in on three numbers that night in Paris was the terrific Chicago tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, who'd moved to France a couple of years before after recording with Montgomery in the States. The typically excitable and exciting Griffin brings some darker color to the mix and even more bluesy energy.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "FULL HOUSE")

WHITEHEAD: When his European tour was over, Wes Montgomery began a new phase of his career making pop-oriented easier listening albums. As three ballads on "Wes Montgomery in Paris" demonstrate, he also sounded good just caressing a melody. Those later records made him more widely beloved, but you can understand why some old fans felt let down. They knew how good Wes sounded when he was really wailing.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "HERE'S THAT RAINY DAY")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead writes for Point Of Departure and is the author of "Why Jazz?" He reviewed "Wes Montgomery In Paris" from Resonance Records. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about special counsel Robert Mueller with Garrett Graff, author of a book about Mueller and his 12-year tenure as FBI director. Graff will tell us how Mueller handled a showdown with President Bush, what his conduct as FBI director can tell us about his handling of the current investigation and what we might expect him to do if he's fired. I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF WES MONTGOMERY'S "HERE'S THAT RAINY DAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.