Monday, April 20, 2015

Wes Montgomery: “In The Beginning” (2015) CD Review

Thursday at work I happened to mention that if I got off a bit early I planned to listen to some new Wes Montgomery discs. In The Beginning, the new two-disc set of early, mostly previously unreleased recordings, had arrived the day before, and I was anxious to dig into those tracks. And so they let me go home maybe an hour or two early (well, maybe it had nothing to do with my plans, but no matter). It wasn’t yet nine o’clock, and I happily popped in the first disc, and was immediately caught up in the music. Wes Montgomery’s playing has always impressed me, but the entire band on these tracks just completely blew me away. There is some serious playing on these CDs. This two-disc set also includes extensive liner notes (more than fifty pages’ worth) which include several photos. In these liner notes, Zev Feldman provides information on where these tracks came from, and also has conversations with Dr. Larry Ridley and Duncan Schiedt. The liner notes also include a piece on Wes Montgomery by Ashley Kahn; a piece on this collection’s tracks by Bill Milkowski; excerpts from Buddy Montgomery’s unpublished autobiography, along with portions of interviews with Monk Montgomery, Buddy Montgomery and Ervena Montgomery; a short piece on the Montgomery family by Dr. Willis F. Kirk; a piece by Quincy Jones, who produced some of the tracks; and a piece by Pete Townshend. It’s a pretty amazing package, but of course it’s the music that is key here.

The first disc contains live recordings from 1956, with Buddy Montgomery joining Wes on piano on all but one track, and Monk Montgomery on bass for many of the tracks. This disc opens with a good rendition of “After You’ve Gone” recorded on August 22nd of that year. All three Montgomery brothers shine at various moments, and they are joined by Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson on saxophone and Sonny Johnson on drums. And that is the band for the first seven tracks (and a few others), all recorded at the Turf Club in Indianapolis in August, 1956. These tracks include a great rendition of Gershwin’s “Fascinating Rhythm” and an absolutely wonderful version of “Brazil.” Check out that pace and that rhythm! You can hear the joy throughout that track. I love how loose it all is. And then it’s followed by a sweet rendition of “What Is There To Say?” with “Pookie” Johnson leading for a while. But it is Wes Montgomery’s lead section on guitar that really grabs my attention.

“Wes’ Tune” is the only original composition on the first disc, and this is an excellent early rendition. This tune would be included on Montgomery’s record Far Wes. I love the playful energy on this early live version, and it includes a groovy bass solo. But it is the following track, an amazing rendition of Rodger and Hart’s “My Heart Stood Still,” that really knocked my socks off.  There is so much going on in this track, so much joy, so many interesting conversations, the instruments dancing with each other, each inspired by the others, and all at a pace that is incredible. The band is seriously cooking, playing the hell out of this tune, and I don’t ever want this track to end. These guys are fueled by some mythic substance, spurred on by a group of frantic, delighted city nymphs. I’ve never heard a version of this song quite like this one, and it’s one of the highlights of this set. Man, listen to Sonny Johnson on drums on this one.

Another highlight for me is Montgomery’s rendition of John Lewis’ “Django.” It opens with that quiet, pretty section, and then when the tune kicks in, it immediately finds a great groove. This track is just so bloody cool, with the band creating this wonderful world, then letting you in, showing you around, making you feel like you should be there too. I love what Buddy Montgomery does on piano on this track.

The group raises things another notch or two on “Going Down To Big Mary’s” with the addition of a vocalist, Debbie Andrews. This is such a fun track. “We’re going to pull back the rugs, turn out the lights, get real high and stay all night.” Oh yes! This track was recorded in November of 1956, and also features John Dale on bass. From that same night we get “I Should Care,” also with Debbie Andrews on vocals. The first disc concludes with “Ralph’s New Blues,” with Buddy Montgomery on vibes, and Jack Coker on piano. Wes Montgomery plays bass on this track, which was recorded in September of 1956 at his sister Ervena Montgomery’s home. This is a good jam, and at seven minutes, is the first disc’s longest track.

The second disc opens with a few tunes recorded in November of 1958 at the Missile Lounge, beginning with a wonderful, somewhat relaxed version of Benny Goodman’s “Soft Winds” featuring Melvin Rhyne on piano. This and the following track, the delicious (and also somewhat relaxed) “Robbins’ Nest,” are two of the longest tracks in this collection, both coming in around twelve minutes, and, as you might expect, there is plenty of excellent playing. I love Richie Crabtree’s work on piano on “Robbins’ Next.” And there are some sweet, playful moments with Wes Montgomery on guitar, little teases of other tunes which you’ll recognize immediately. And I love the give-and-take section between Wes and Richie toward the end. The other long track is a great version of Jerome Kern’s “All The Things You Are,” which is also approximately twelve minutes. This was recorded in Chicago in 1957, and features some spirited playing by Wes Montgomery.

This disc also includes five tracks from a 1955 recording session for Epic Records produced by Quincy Jones. These tracks feature the same lineup as those Turf Club recordings from August of 1956: Wes Montgomery on guitar, Buddy Montgomery on piano, Monk Montgomery on bass, Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson on tenor saxophone, and Sonny Johnson on drums. The first of these tracks is a very cool rendition of Cole Porter’s “Love For Sale,” featuring some fun leads by Pookie and Buddy, with Monk providing some fantastic stuff beneath them. These five tracks include three Wes Montgomery compositions, the first being “Leila,” a tune that would see a release a few years later on Montgomery’s Far Wes. The second is “Blues,” one of my personal favorite tracks on this disc. This is a fun, groovy tune with a rhythm and blues vibe. “Pookie” Johnson really owns this one. The third Montgomery composition is an early version of “Far Wes,” which would later be a title track to one of his first albums. This version is somewhat shorter, but really good, and includes just a bit of studio talk at the end.

This incredible collection concludes with three studio tracks recorded in 1949, with Wes Montgomery on guitar, Roy Johnson on bass, Douglas Duke on piano, Gene Morris on tenor saxophone, and Earl “Fox” Walker on drums. “King Trotter,” written by Gene Morris, is a wild, fast-paced tune, with Duke sounding like he’s announcing a trolley on piano at the beginning. It isn’t long before Wes Montgomery takes a brief lead spot. “Carlena’s Blues” is a wonderful, slower number, featuring Sonny Parker on vocals (Parker also wrote this one). “Smooth Evening” is a truly fun tune written by Roy Johnson and also featuring Sonny Parker on vocals.

CD Track List

Disc 1
  1. After You’ve Gone
  2. Fascinating Rhythm
  3. Brazil
  4. What Is There To Say?
  5. Four
  6. Wes’ Tune
  7. My Heart Stood Still
  8. How High The Moon
  9. Django
  10. Going Down To Big Mary’s
  11. I Should Care
  12. Caravan
  13. Six Bridges To Cross
  14. Ralph’s New Blues
Disc 2
  1. Soft Winds
  2. Robbins’ Nest
  3. A Night In Tunisia
  4. Love For Sale
  5. Leila
  6. Blues
  7. Undecided
  8. Far Wes
  9. All The Things You Are
  10. King Trotter
  11. Carlena’s Blues
  12. Smooth Evening
In The Beginning is scheduled to be released on May 12, 2015 on Resonance Records. In addition to the two-disc CD set, it will be issued as a limited edition three-record vinyl set. 

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