When Wes Montgomery went into New York's Reeves Sound Studios in January 1960 to record The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, no one anticipated the excitement the album would generate. While Montgomery's ability on electric guitar was already evident and the song selection for the date was ideal (three standards and five cutting-edge originals), how the album would play out with the jazz listening public and critics was a wild card.
By the time the LP was released later in the year, the critics were raving and Montgomery, with one album, had solidified his position as a jazz great. He would never again record as a sideman.
The reason why Incredible was—and remains—exceptional is that it exhibits brilliantly Montgomery's full range of improvisational tricks—known as the "the three-tier technique."
Incredible—in addition to functioning as a chops showcase—was fresh and ambitious, and unlike anything recorded before by a jazz guitarist. Montgomery's reach, strength and ideas were a significant cut above—equivalent, in this raw regard, to Erroll Garner. Both were self-taught, and through their musical ignorance invented impossible, ingenious styles because, frankly, they didn't know any better.
Montgomery's "three-tier technique" unleashed a trio of improvisational styles—each different than the other and each delivering a different impact on the ear. There was the peculiar downward thumb stroke technique, the dramatic use of octaves to run lines, and block chords that put what one critic called a big band in Montgomery's hands.
As Montgomery told critic Ralph J. Gleason in an interview for Guitar Player Magazine in the 1960s:
"My aim is to move from one vein to the other without any trouble. Like, if you're going to take a melody or counterpoint or a unison line with another instrument, do that, then maybe drop out at a certain point, then maybe next time you'll play phrases and chords, or maybe you'll take an octave or something. That way you'll have a lot of variation there. The only difference is if you can control each of them. Still, the biggest thing to me is keeping a feeling, regardless [of] what you play. So many cats lose their feeling at various times, not through the whole tune, but at various times, and it causes them to have to build up and drop down, and you can feel it."
What Montgomery also brings to Incredible that we don't hear in previous jazz guitar albums is soul. There's an earthiness to his playing that's warm and exuberant, almost as if he's playing an acoustic guitar. To the listener, his sound is everything you want the guitar to be. It swaggers, it flirts, it's coy, it's dexterous and it's darting.
Montgomery's quote from James Sallis' 1982 book, The Guitar Players: One Instrument and Its Masters in American Music (1982) says it all:
"I began working hard and experimenting with techniques, seeking out the ones that felt good and were more expressive of my thoughts. My explorations continued for quite a while. My technique improved, developing out of particular playing situations. More and more of me passed through my amplifier to those who took the time to listen."
Most jazz guitarists before Montgomery used a plectrum (or "pick") made of plastic, wood or bone in their right hand. It took the stress off the thumb and delivered precision. Montgomery gave up the pick in favor of his right thumb early on because he didn't like the hard sound. Asked if he had decided on his own to play with his thumb, Montgomery told an interviewer back in 1965:
"That just came accidentally. You see, at the time , after I had accepted the fact that I was going to play with my thumb, it was still for my own amusement. If I had deiced to be a professional musician, I'd have gone right back to the pick."
As for Montgomery's octave playing, it was almost impossible to copy at the time because of the speed needed to execute the sound and the required use of the pinky in the player's weaker hand.
And then there were Montgomery's block chords. Montgomery usually worked in these chunky clusters as textured filler when running improvisational lines or, to even greater effect, when medium-tempo songs hit their crescendo.
Using just one approach to improvise was too restrictive for Montgomery and only scratched the surface of what he could do with the electric guitar.
Montgomery recorded Incredible on January 26 and 28 of 1960 while recording as a sideman on Nat Adderley's Work Song album for Riverside on January 25 and 27.
Pull out Incredible and listen to Airegin. It opens with Montgomery blazing with his thumb technique. He soon shifts to the octave technique on the song's bridge. His opening solo is so astonishing that Tommy Flanagan at first seems lost though he soon get traction and starts laying down silvery runs.
D-Natural Blues follows with a completely different sound. This walking blues employs the octave technique first, followed by the thumb technique. Four on Six is a tour de force of Montgomery's thumb technique.
West Coast Blues is a moderate waltz and features all three techniques. The song opens with the thumb technique, moves to the octave technique, and then comes the block chords.
Interestingly, Mr. Walker starts with blocks chords, moves to the octave technique and then shifts to the thumb technique.
Gone With the Wind, which is probably my favorite track, opens with the thumb technique, shifts to octaves and peaks with block chords. Gone With the Wind never ceases to amaze me, not only for these techniques but also for its relentless swing. Whenever this track ends, I often find myself starting it over again, and I always hear something new.
Incredible won Montgomery the 1960 Downbeat Critics' New Star Award. In 1964, Montgomery moved to Verve Records for a series of albums with orchestra and strings. Then, in 1967, he joined Creed Taylor at A&M, where he recorded pop-rock standards of the day, attracting criticism for selling out. But with seven kids, Montgomery had little choice but to follow the money. Montgomery died of a heart attack in June 1968 at age 42.
The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery remains ahead of its time today, and the reason it's revered by everyone who hears it will be evident with the first track's opening notes.
Wax tracks: This CD must be heard as a remaster. I purchased a Japanese import of Incredible some years ago, and the sound is as warm and clear as can be. It can be found here. But don't overspend; the newly remastered version here is terrific.
Wax pages: Professor-guitarist Reno De Stefano of the University of Montreal wrote his 1995 doctoral dissertation on Wes Montgomery. The Montgomery quotes above are from his paper. You'll find excerpts from his excellent work, "Wes Montgomery's Improvisational Style, 1959-1963: The Riverside Years," here.
Wax clips: Dig Montgomery's mix of techniques on Impressions from March 1965 here. Then check out Mr. Walker here. Pay particular attention to Montgomery's pinky, which helps run the octave technique.