Back in 2012, Resonance Records released a killer find—Wes Montgomery: Echoes of Indiana Ave. The album featured nine tracks from a tape made of the guitarist in 1957 and '58 at local clubs. I wrote about the album for The Wall Street Journal here. Now, the label has issued more Montgomery marvels—this time a two-CD set called Wes Montgomery: In the Beginning that's loaded with even richer finds. [Above, from left, Alonzo "Pookie" Johnson on tenor sax, Monk Montgomery on bass, Wes Montgomery on guitar and Buddy Montgomery on piano in 1956]
This CD set came into focus when producer Zev Feldman received a call from Robert Montgomery, Wes's son. Robert wanted to introduce Zev to his mother, Ann. In her possession were tapes of Montgomery in the mid-1950s recorded at Indianapolis's Turf Club and Missile Lounge along with a jam session at Wes's younger sister's home. Fourteen of the album's 26 tracks came from these tapes, and all were previously unreleased. Fortunately for everyone, Philip Kahl, a 22-year-old student at Butler University in Indianapolis, was friendly with Montgomery and had recorded him in the '50s with his portable tape recorder.
But those tapes weren't enough for Zev or Resonance founder and executive producer George Klabin. After a bit more digging, Zev convinced a colleague to make a tape available recorded in 1957 at the C&C Music Lounge in Chicago. Then a private collector in Austria ponied up three 78 sides featuring Wes as a sideman with tenor saxophonist Gene Morris and his Hamptones, featuring members of Lionel Hampton's orchestra. Then drummer and jazz historian Kenny Washington hipped Zev to previously unissued tracks for Epic Records in 1955 that Zev then licensed from Sony.
They're all here. Much of this set is a result of Zev's doggedness and growing industry reputation. So much of the jazz-legacy music business is about trust, respect, passion and responsibility. Zev's hard work on earlier releases and George's impeccable sonic sensibility have established the label as a craft shop that never compromises when it comes to worthy material and fidelity.
The earliest three tracks were recorded in 1949 when Montgomery was in Fresno, Calif., as a sideman with tenor saxophonist Gene Morris. Also in the group were Douglas Duke (p), Roy Johnson (b) and Earl "Fox" Walker (d)—a quintet that straddled bop and R&B. Next are the five terrific sides produced by Quincy Jones for Epic that never came together for an album. These are among this set's most interesting tracks, largely due to the tight symbiosis between Montgomery and tenor saxophone Alonzo "Pookie" Johnson. Johnson had a vibrating reed that when joined in unison with Montgomery's guitar, produced a wonderfully fuzzy sound. This feel would be rekindled in 1960 by saxophonist James Clay on Movin' Along. The Epic session includes two of Montgomery's seductive originals, Leila and Far Wes, with solo guitar lines that were years ahead of the going style at the time.
Johnson is also with Montgomery at the Turf Club in August 1956. We have 10 glorious tracks from that gig, including a commanding Four. In September '56, Montgomery was captured on tape playing an electric bass on Ralph's New Blues at the Indianapolis home of his younger sister. In November, he was back at the Turf Club behind singer Debbie Andrews, an Ellington vocalist and sister of the drummer, Sonny Johnson. She sings Going Down to Big Mary's, a blues, and I Should Care, with a Sarah Vaughan feel and an Al Hibbler touch, which raises chuckles of recognition in the club.
The latter track makes for fascinating listening, as Montgomery is heard phrasing beautifully behind Andrews. While Montgomery is on dates with plenty of singers—Jon Hendricks and Joe Williams among them—those recording sessions were with large ensembles and bands. Here, it's just Andrews (above) and Montgomery, and the results are gorgeous, making us wish Riverside's Orrin Keepnews had paired him with just a vocalist for a duet album. Rounding out the album is a track from Chicago's C&C Music Lounge in 1957 and three from November 1958 at Indianapolis's Missile Lounge—a groovy Soft Winds, a hip Robbins' Nest and an uptempo Night in Tunisia.
I'm not quite sure why the songs on this set aren't in chronological order, but they're easy enough to rearrange once you have them in an iTunes folder. Once you do, the set tells a fascinating story of a sideman who finds his voice and slowly begins to stand out as a soloist and leader. Evident from the start is how exceptional Montgomery was early on. As you'll hear, there was no keeping him down or tucked away in the background. The irony is there was no real beginning for Montgomery. Artistically, he was always years ahead of his age. Montgomery died in June 1968 of a heart attack at age 45.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Wes Montgomery: In the Beginning (Resonance) here.
JazzWax clip: Here's Far Wes produced by Quincy Jones and recorded in 1955 for Epic Records...
JazzWax doc: Here's Zev Feldman explaining how the album came together...