The general rule when approaching the music of Wes Montgomery is the earlier the material the better. By the time he recorded for the A&M label near the end of his life, he had incorporated strings into his sound and smoothed out the production. While these changes garnered him wide mainstream success, his music lost some of its creativeness and raw power.
Since his death in 1968, there have been very few releases of predominantly unreleased material. Now a new two-CD release has been issued combining several live performances with newly unearthed 1955 recordings produced by a young Quincy Jones, plus some of the earliest recording of his career from 1949.
Thirteen of the 14 tracks on the first disc were recorded live from two different performances at the Turf Club in Indianapolis during the second half of 1956. While the sound is average at best due to the technology of the day and the fact that they were made by a 21 year old college student, it presents a nice glimpse into his developing style as one of the best jazz guitarists of his generation. He is accompanied by brother Buddy (piano), Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson (sax), Sonny Johnson (drums), and depending on the show, other brother Monk or John Dale (bass).
A small club setting gives him the room to improvise. It is a performance grounded in the fifties. “After You’ve Gone” is an old swing tune featuring interplay between Pookie Johnson’s sax and Montgomery’s guitar. “Four” is an excellent example of his ability to string notes together. “How High The Moon” is an extended jam as the quintet explores all facets of the melody.
The second disc centers on the five tracks produced by Quincy Jones during 1955. The sound in superior to the first disc given the fact they were recorded for general release. The three Montgomery brothers, plus the two Johnson’s spent two days in the studio recording an upbeat “Love For Sale” and some instrumental harmonies on the ballad ”Leila.” The most creative tracks are “Undecided,” where Montgomery focuses on one note for his improvisation and “Blues,” which serves as a vehicle for Johnson’s sax solos.
There is also a live track recorded at Chicago’s C&C Music Lounge in 1957 with saxophonist Johnson and a group of unidentified musicians. Clocking in at just over 12 minutes, it gives Montgomery time to develop his solo as he explores the songs melody.
The final three tracks on the set are from 1949 and find Montgomery more as a sideman to sax player Gene Morris. “King Trotter,” “Carlena’s Blues,” and “Smooth Evening” are all short and concise pieces that find Montgomery at the beginning of his career.
A 50 page booklet is included featuring music historian Ashley Khan, jazz writer Bill Milkowski, Pete Townshend, and recollections by Quincy Jones. Also included are a number of archival photos.
In The Beginning is a historical must for any fan of Montgomery or of the development of the jazz guitar. Unreleased material by Wes Montgomery has been few and far in-between and these early recordings should be treasured.