Boss Guitar - Wes Montgomery

Boss Guitar - Wes Montgomery
Not everybody can pull off a opening vamp like the one for Besame Mucho - but Mel Rhyne & Jimmy Cobb make it happen. For that matter, not many can pull off a tune like Besame Mucho, but Wes, Mel & Jimmy are just the guys for the job.
Boss Guitar is one of Wes Montgomery's classic Riverside albums - a must-have for any guitarist, jazz player or not. Apart being a tour de force on the guitar, this record also highlights Wes' great ability to take tunes like Besame Mucho - that can be painfully square if one isn't careful - and make them respectably hip. After all, it's not the song, but how you play it - an art Wes had clearly mastered (some of his later work, like Tequila notwithstanding, but that's another story...)

Besame Mucho isn't the only such potentially hazardous "ole chestnut" on this record. Canadian Sunset and Dearly Beloved can be easily mishandled, and oftentimes have at the hands of less gifted musicians. Wes, however, simply simmers his way through these more uptempo numbers (the choice of these tempos doesn't hurt the hipness quotient) with his characteristic aplomb. One of the great hallmarks of Montgomery's virtuosity is the effortlessness with which he plays, particularly at medium to up tempos. Not just his much-lauded switching from single note lines to octaves and on to chord solos, but the ease and melodicism which which the solos flow, all technical prowess aside.

Listen closely to Wes' lines and melodies: like Miles and Bird solos, these lines has a certain inevitable quality, playing out the way they do as if by destiny, as if there was no better way to do so. Wes has a uncanny knack for getting lines to "land on their feet" no what what unexpected twists and turns they may take on the way. Also evident on these tunes - Dearly Beloved and Canadian Sunset especially - is Wes ' remarkable ability to interject and punctuate open, soaring melodies with blues phrases that are organic parts of the line, and not hackneyed cliches. (No wonder Montgomery was Trane's pick as a guitarist for his early 60s group).

The tune that really takes the "chestnut" prize on this record is Dearly Beloved. Talk about a number that's no picnic to pull off - take any tune at a tempo this slow, and most groups are asking for trouble. Add to that the fact that half of your rhythm section is an organist, and most listeners will be dozing off before you're done counting in the opening bar... Again, the group (Wes in particular) rises to occasion and makes it work. Mel's solo has a few faltering moments on the harmonic thin ice, but overall, Mel's the man on this tune, his accompaniment sustaining the momentum of the piece and doing a lot to define the mood. Jimmy Cobb's tastefully obsequious playing doesn't hurt either.

Boss Guitar (Riverside RLP 459)
Plaza Sound Studios, NYC
April 22, 1963

Kind of Blue - Miles Davis

Kind of Blue - Miles Davis
How many times have we been subjected to remake after unmemorable remake of the tunes on Kind of Blue? Most readings of these songs are largely forgettable, especially when held up alongside the originals - seems Miles and his subsequent groups were the only ones that consistently did these pieces justice. This said, it goes without saying that this album was, still is and will always be an indispensable cornerstone of any jazz collection - one of those records I'd venture to say "If you could only have one jazz CD, make sure it's..."

What really makes it hold up as a timeless classic is the all-around stellar playing of the group, no doubt in part inspired by Miles' selection of material: His "introduction" of modal harmonic structures in these pieces, and the fresh ideas the material elicited in the quintet's playing. The most oft-cited piece in this regard is the (in)famous So What, for obvious reasons. We all know this became a Trane standard as Impressions - and a blazing uptempo romp for the 60s Miles quintets - and was recycled as a number of other tunes by other groups. So What is one of the quintessential tunes in every aspiring jazz player's book (required reading for Jazz 101, that only gets more enigmatic and challenging for PhD's - hence the myriad half-assed versions of this song that have been recorded and played of the years).

Interestingly, it's always struck me that the other really "modal" piece on the record is largely overlooked and underplayed (though that may be a blessing in disguise). To me, Flamenco Sketches allows the group to stretch out even more and really immerse themselves in modal improvisations. The solos are a bit more raw and vulnerable - without as steady a pulse, momentum is generated more by the line of the soloist's melody that the rhythm section - there's a uncommonly delicate, fragile beauty to both Miles and Coltrane's solos. While so much 60s Trane has been traced back to So What, in Flamenco Sketches I hear early strains of that more elusive, haunting quality that reappears later in Expression and pieces like Wise One, Crescent, Meditations, etc.

Cannonball's playing on Flamenco is equally intriguing - imbued with a ecstatic yet poignant drive, it almost captures the joyous energy of his later Live at The Club classics, but in the more subdued context of this recording. Evans seems in his element here - if anyone's later work can be traced back to anything on Kind of Blue, the moods and colors Evans creates on Sketches seem most evocative of the shape of things to come...

Of course, I'm as guilty as the next guy with regards to having committed countless crimes in the name of So What - dunno how many times I've played it, but do know of only a few where I've even come close to really playing it. A recent listen to Kind of Blue rekindled my interest in Flamenco Sketches, and have been delightedly working on the tune ever since. Best part is: Flamenco feels fresh. Every time I play through it, the tune's full of new possibilities and surprises. Maybe that's more of how the group was hearing things back in '59. Whatever the case, the sextet's version still sounds fresh as ever - and I have renewed faith that these songs are far from played out. Avante-garde is more a state of mind, not a sound at a particular place in time...

Kind of Blue (Columbia CL 1355)
March 2 & April 6, 1959
Columbia 30th Street Studios, NYC