Wes Montgomery, Live in ’65 (Jazz Icons). Anyone interested in guitar at the highest level will be fascinated by this DVD. If you are intrigued by the democratic, cooperative nature of jazz, you will relish the first segment. Sitting in a television studio in Holland with a rhythm section he is apparently meeting for the first time, Montgomery walks pianist Pim Jacobs through a tune whose name the guitarist doesn’t know. The song turns out to be “The End of a Love Affair.” Montgomery is relaxed and articulate. He is definite and specific about the altered harmonic progression he wants, spelling out the chords both instrumentally and verbally.
As Pat Metheny emphasizes in his erudite liner notes, this is not the instinctual primitive genius of the myth that has been built up around Montgomery’s memory. Montgomery knows what he is doing and articulates it in specific musical terms. He and Jacobs negotiate the nature and placement of the chords, and the band comes to agreement about how to proceed. Montgomery is at ease with Jacobs, Pim’s bassist brother Ruud and the energetic young drummer Han Bennink, who was becoming the ubiquitous and eclectic force in European music that he remains today. They clearly adore Montgomery and seem a bit stunned at finding themselves playing with him. But play they do, soaring on the energy and thrust that Montgomery inspires with his virtuosity. They nail not only “The End of a Love Affair,” but also a fine version of “Nica’s Dream” and a spontaneous blues. From his smiles, it is clear that Montgomery is pleased.
Two days later in a TV studio in Belgium, Montgomery is with a familiar rhythm section, pianist Harold Mabern, bassist Arthur Harper and drummer Jimmy Lovelace. If there were runthroughs, we don’t see them. The quartet cooks through five pieces including Coltrane’s “Impressions” and Montgomery’s challenging “Jingles.” As in Holland, excellent camera work and direction give the viewer vantage points from which to observe Montgomery’s celebrated use of his thumb rather than a pick. His unorthodox technique, his octave lines, his polyphony, his harmonic and rhythmic daring have merged into standard jazz guitar language, but forty-two years ago they still seemed revolutionary. This is a rare opportunity to observe details of his approach. Guitarists will be studying the closeups of Montgomery’s hands on the strings and fingerboard for a long time.
The final segment on the disc is from March, 1965, recorded in London under somewhat contrived conditions. Saxophonist and entrepeneur Ronnie Scott, with his back to Montgomery, explains the musician and his music as Montgomery sits like a studio prop. Scott does his part to perpetuate the legend of Montgomery as unable to read music. If that was technically correct on some level, Montgomery was fully schooled in detailed understanding of harmony, as he proved in Holland. A bit more subdued than in the earlier segments, Montgomery nonetheless plays beautifully with the rhythm section that was accompanying him at Scott’s club; pianist Stan Tracey, bassist Rick Laird and drummer Jackie Dougan. There are versions of “Twisted Blues” and “Here’s That Rainy Day” to compare with those a month earlier in Belgium. We also see and hear workouts on “Full House” and “Four on Six,” Tracey’s solo on the latter disclosing his appreciation of Thelonious Monk.
One of the most telling sequences showing Montgomery’s thumb at work comes behind the DVD’s closing credits as he plays “West Coast Blues.” This disc is a highlight of the superb second batch of Jazz Icons DVDs.