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“The middle and most celebrated of the Montgomery brothers was born like the others in Indianapolis. He took to guitar late and only began Ins professional career-in Lionel Hampton's band-when he was 25. … he developed a style in which thumb-plucked single-note lines were backed with softly strummed octaves and chords. …
Wes Montgomery gave off a sense of effortlessness that is always bad karma in jazz; a little sweat and preferably some pain is almost considered de rigueur. But Montgomery used to loose off solos as if he was sitting on his back porch talking to friends.
He used a homely, thumb-picking technique, rather than a plectrum or the faster finger-picking approach. Stylistically, he copied Charlie Christian's bop and added elements of Django Reinhardt's harmonic conception. It's interesting and ironic that Montgomery's most prominent latter-day disciple, George Benson, should have made almost exactly the same career move, trading off a magnificent improvisational sense against commercial success.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.
“Few jazz musicians have had the rise to professional acclaim that John Leslie (Wes) Montgomery, the guitar-playing member of the Indiana Montgomery family, has had in the last two years.
Up until that time almost unknown to the jazz public outside his native Indianapolis, Montgomery was heralded by Cannonball Adderley, Gunther Schuller and other musicians who heard him and was brought by Adderley to the attention of Orrin Keepnews of Riverside Records, who promptly recorded him. Since that debut (his second, for he had toured with Lionel Hampton for two years in the early '40s), Montgomery has run away with the New Star Guitar category in DownBeat’s International Jazz Critics Poll and today seems a cinch to live up to his billing as the "best thing that has happened to the guitar since Charlie Christian."
For the last year, Wes has worked with his brothers, Buddy (vibes) and Monk (bass), as the Montgomery Brothers. The other two Montgomerys are half the original Mastersounds quartet, which a few years ago won the Critics Poll as Best New Small Group.
Pinned down recently between rehearsals and pool games (shooting pool is his only hobby), Wes discussed guitar players (including himself) with the ease and familiarity born of years of listening:
"I started in 1943, right after I got married. I bought an amplifier and a guitar
around two or three months later. I used to play a tenor guitar, but it wasn't playing you know. I didn't really get down to business until I got the six-string, which was just like starting all over to me.
"I got interested in playing the guitar because of Charlie Christian. Like all other guitar players! There's no way out. I never saw him in my life, but he said so much or the records that I don't care what instrument a cat played, if he didn't understand and didn't feel and really didn't get with the things that Charlie Christian was doing, he was a pretty poor musician—he was so far ahead.
"Before Charlie Christian I liked (Django) Reinhardt and Les Paul and those cats, but it wasn't what you 'd call new. Just guitar. For the exciting new thing, they didn't impress me like that. But Charlie Christian did; I mean, he stood out above all of it to me.
"'Solo Flight' was the first record I heard. Boy, that was too much! I still hear it! He was it for me, and I didn't look at nobody else. I didn't hear nobody else for about a year or so. Couldn't even hear them.
"I'm not really musically inclined. It takes guts, you know! I was 19 and I liked music, but it didn't really inspire me to go into things. But there was a cat living in Indianapolis named Alex Stevens. He played guitar, and he was about the toughest cat I heard around our vicinity, and I tried to get him to show me a few things.
"So, eventually what I did was I took all of Charlie Christian's records, and I listened to them real good. I knew what he was doing on that guitar could be done on the one I had because I had a six-string. So I was just determined I'd do it. I didn't quit. It didn't quite come out like that, but I got pretty good at it, and I took all the solos off the records. I got a job playing just the solos, making money in a club. That's all I did—played Charlie Christian solos and then laid out! Mel Lee—he's the piano player with B.B. King—had the band, and he helped me a lot.
"Then I went on the road with the Brownskin Models and later with Snookum Russell. Ray Brown was on the band at that time. I didn't realize he was playing so much bass until I heard him with Diz!
"Hamp was the only big band I went with, 1948-'50. I didn't use any amplifier at all. He had a lot of things for the sextet, but he never got to record that group.
"I'm so limited. I have a lot of ideas— well, a lot of thoughts—that I'd like to see done with the guitar. With the octaves, that was just a coincidence, going into octaves. It's such a challenge yet, you know, and there's a lot that can be done with it and with chord versions like block chords on piano. But each of these things has a feeling of its own, and it takes so much time to develop all your technique.
"I don't use a pick at all, and that's one of the downfalls, too. In order to get a certain amount of speed, you should use a pick, I think. You don't have to play fast, but being able to play fast can cause you to phrase better. If you had the technique you could phrase better, even if you don't play fast. I think you'd have more control of the instrument.
"I didn't like the sound of a pick. I tried it for, I guess, about two months. I didn't even use my thumb at all. But after two months time, I still couldn't use the pick. So I said, 'Well, which are you going to do?' I liked the tone better with thumb, but I liked the technique with the pick. I couldn't have them both, so I just have to cool.
"I think every instrument should have a certain amount of tone quality within the instrument, but I can't seem to get the right amplifiers and things to get this thing out. I like to hear good phrasing. I'd like to hear a guitar play parts like instead of playing melodic lines, leave that and play chord versions of lines. Now, that's an awful hard thing to do, but it would be different. But I think in those terms, or if a cat could use octaves for a line instead of one note. Give you a double sound with a good tone to it. Should sound pretty good if you got another blending instrument with it.
"Other guitar players? Well, Barney Kessel. I've got to go for that. He's got a lot of feeling and a good conception of chords in a jazz manner. He's still trying to do a lot of things, and he's not just standing still with guitar, just settling for one particular level. He's still going all he can, and that's one thing I appreciate about him. He's trying to phrase, also. He's trying to get away from the guitar phrase and get into horn phrasing.
"And Tal Farlow. Tal Farlow strikes me as different altogether. He doesn't have as much feeling as Barney Kessel to me, but he's got more drive in his playing, and
his technique along with that drive is pretty exciting. He makes it exciting. I think he's got a better conception of modern chords than the average guitar player.
"A lot of guitar players can play modern chords, they can take a solo of modern chords; but they're liable to leave it within the solo range that they're in. They're liable to get away from it and then come back to it, get away from it and come back to it. Tal Farlow usually stays right on it.
"Jimmy Raney is just the opposite from Tal Farlow. They seem like they have the same ideas in mind, the same changes, the same runs, the same kind of feeling. But Jimmy Raney is so smooth. He does it without a mistake, like some cats play piano they couldn't make a mistake if they wanted to. That's the way Jimmy Raney is. He gives it a real soft touch, but the ideas are just like Tal Farlow's to me.
"And then George Henry, a cat I heard in Chicago. He's a playing cat. He asked could he play a tune, and so he gets up there, and that's the first time I ever heard a guitar phrase like Charlie Parker. It was just the solos, the chords and things he used were just like any other cat, you know. And there's another guy from Houston who plays with his thumb.
"And naturally, Reinhardt, he's in a different thing altogether. And Charlie Byrd. You know, I like all guitar players. I like what they play. But to stand out like Charlie Christian. Well, I guess it's just one of those things.
"My aim, I think, is to be able to move from one vein to another without any trouble. If you were going to take a melody line or counterpoint or unison lines with another instrument, do that and then, maybe after a certain point, you drop out completely, and maybe the next time you'll play phrases and chords or something or maybe you'll take octaves. That way you have a lot of variations, if you can control each one of them and still keep feeling it. To me the biggest thing is to keep the feeling within your playing regardless of what you play. Keep a feeling there, and that's hard to do.
"You know, John Coltrane has been sort of a god to me. Seems like, in a way, he didn't get the inspiration out of other musicians. He had it. When you hear a cat do a thing like that, you got to go along with him. I think I heard Coltrane before I really got close to Miles. Miles had a tricky way of playing his horn that I didn't understand as much as I did Coltrane. I really didn't understand what Coltrane was doing, but it was so exciting, the thing that he was doing. Then after I really began to understand Miles, then Miles came up on top.
"Now, this may sound pretty weird— the way I feel when I'm up there playing the way I play doesn't match—but it's like some cats are holding your hands. C'mon, you know, and they'll keep you in there. If you try to keep up to them, they'll lose you, you know. And I like that. I really like that.
"Sometimes I'll do nothing but listen to records. All kinds, over and over. Then, after a while, it breaks and I don't even want to hear them. Nothing. I think it's because at the times I don't want to hear, I've heard so much it's got me confused and I'm so far away from it on my instrument—from the things I've been hearing— that I've got to put it aside and go back to where I am. And try to get out of that hole!
"I was surprised to win the DownBeat thing. I think I was playing more in 1952 than I ever have."”