Monday, September 21, 2015

CD Review: Wes Montgomery - In the Beginning

Wes Montgomery
In the Beginning

This one has been out for a while, but it's worth another go-around because it shouldn't be missed.

There have been early recordings of Wes Montgomery performing in his hometown of Indianapolis. And there are live recordings by other artists where the historical impact sometimes outweighs the sonic aspects. This is definitely the former, but not the latter. The history is there and so is the sound quality. And the sound will  make a casual Wes Montgomery fan, with just a working knowledge of his recordings, want to go out and dive into all of them. Even the latter day more commercial ones, for completion.

Most of In the Beginning dates back to 1955 and 1956. Wes's guitar is heard in a quintet with his brothers Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano), with tenor saxophonist Albert "Pookie" Johnson and drummer Sonny Johnson. The Johnsons were not related but they sound like it, due to the way they blend with the Brothers Montgomery. The guitar, tenor and piano harmonize in a rapid and  incredibly rich intro to "Fascinating Rhythm," where the piano almost sounds like an organ when it combines with the other two instruments. In this setting, Wes's tone starts out sounding round and smooth, but there are moments where he cuts loose and sounds like he's shooting sparks, with the wild tone he gets from his guitar. What's even more of a shock is a lot of this magic happened at the Turf Club, a venue that would allow the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet to play but would only admit white patrons, at least initially. It's hard to imagine such inspiration coming from a rather oppressive space.

The quintet recorded five songs in New York City around that same time, with Quincy Jones producing the session for the fledgling Epic label. All five are included on the second disc, all of them showing the group to be as tight in the studio as they were onstage. Some of it could have easily made its way on to Blue Note, but only "Love for Sale" has been previously released (on a 1983 album of unreleased tracks from the Columbia vaults).

Also included is a reading of Benny Goodman's "Soft Winds" where Wes stretches out, as does Mel Rhyne, on piano rather than his trademark B3 organ. A recording made at Wes' sister's house finds her brother picking up the bass for "Ralph's New Blues," a spotlight for Buddy's vibes. Three long-lost 78s by a group called Gene Morris & the Hamptones also appear, dating back to 1949, two of them coming through travels that took Resonance's Zev Feldman to Austria to find them.

Being a Resonance package, In the Beginning is festooned with a 56-page booklet that overflows with: track-by-track credits; observations by Bill Milkowski and Ashley Kahn; and interviews with Quincy Jones, bassist Dr. Larry Ridley and photojournalist Duncan Schiedt, the latter two who lived in Indianapolis. An excerpt from Buddy Montgomery's unpublished book offers further insight into the rapport among the Montgomery family members. If that wasn't enough, Pete Townshend penned a touching essay about the significance of Wes Montgomery's music to both the pre-Who guitarist and his father. While contributions like this often rest on their star power, Townshend hits the emotional nerve directly, doing Montgomery a great service while talking largely about the guitarist's impact.

The sense of history with the set is almost overpowering. It's tempting to get existential about the whole thing and ponder what would have happened if the Montgomerys never strayed beyond their hometown, etc. etc. Rather than take that route, just put the music on and get lost in it, which is easy to do, especially during moments when the crowd goes wild during a "Night in Tunisia" guitar solo that includes a sideways quote from another tune. Soak up the music and then remember to support your local musicians because if this group could make musical history in the mid-'50s in front of a select few, that means you might be hearing history today. And it's important not to miss anything.

PS Resonance is going to be releasing package by the late organist Larry Young before too long. I can't wait!

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