Widely regarded as the most influential jazz guitarist since the death of Charlie Christian, Wes Montgomery (1923-1968) revolutionised jazz guitar technique in the sixties with his fluid phrasing and innovative use of octaves and block chords. The title of his breakthrough album The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery (1960) is not mere hyperbole, and to many listeners at the time it seemed like an understatement. Below I’ve included a couple of phrases from a tune on the album called Mr. Walker. The first phrase is the introduction to his solo, and the second is his playing on the bridge of the tune during his first chorus. The latter is notable for his shifting placement of the F minor seventh arpeggio, and the sequential passage which culminates in a classic altered dominant phrase.
In January 17 I transcribed what I felt was a rather compelling chorus of improvisation by Wes Montgomery on his arrangement of the often played Jimmy Van Heusen standard Here’s That Rainy Day. The only problem at the time was that I had no idea which album this particular version was from. I’d come across it on a compilation entitled Jazz Guitar on the Emporio label, and there were no liner notes or indeed any other kind of information. Later I found the same version, albeit with worse sound quality, on an album rather misleadingly listed as The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, and in small letters – Ultra Rare American Club Performance. It’s neither the classic album of the same name, nor, it turns out, was it recorded in the aforementioned American club. The recording appears to be from an album entitled Live in Europe, dating the performance to 1965. It certainly showcases some inspired playing, and offers a marked contrast to the faster and more succinct strings and harp adorned version on the Bumpin’ album.
Here’s That Rainy Day, brings out Wes’ lyrical side, the slow moving harmony spurring him on to great feats of melodic dexterity. In his arrangement of the tune, not only does he transpose the tune from G to the more unusual E (a transposition which allows him a catchy chordal tag over a low pedal E), he transforms it from a ballad to a bossa, and doubles the length of the form from 32 to 64 bars.
The solo begins 2:04 seconds in, directly after the dramatic, somewhat Spanish influenced tag. Throughout, Wes exploits the full range of the guitar, and makes great use of triplet figures, often in conjunction with sweeping arpeggios. The drive and assurance on display is phenomenal, and prevents the piece from becoming pedestrian – something I can easily imagine happening in the hands of most guitarists attempting this arrangement.
There is much to admire over the course of the improvisation and plenty to study. Part of the reason the chorus is so effective, lies with Wes’ ability to develop an idea and also return to it latter on, imparting an authoritative sense of command and structure. Look at how in bar 46 he returns to the opening phrase, going on to retain the crotchet triplet idea in bar 2, but alter the notes and phrasing. From early on in the solo he uses melodic sequences to build cohesion, targeting chord tones in bars 4-8 in a descending pattern which subtly alters the rhythmic scheme in bar 6 to prevent the phrase from becoming too predictable. Other instances of melodic sequences include the descending pattern in bars 28-30, and the octave phrase he uses at the end of the chorus.
The consistency of the underlying bossa nova pulse invites Wes to explore rhythmic ideas, which he does to great effect in bars 17-21 and 33-36. The B and E quavers in the second half of bar 17 are emphatic, but avoid sounding too straight-laced by virtue of straddling the bar line, and forming twin pedal points against the changing harmony, before spiralling downwards at twice the speed. In bar 33 Wes sets up a three note rhythmic idea which continually shifts it’s placement in the bar, offsetting the time signature, before seamlessly moving to the next phrase in bar 37.
Wes brings a bit a grease to the proceedings in the form of slurs and slides, his semitone slurs into the notes of a G major triad in bars 23-24 are particularly effective. He also makes guitaristic use of upper mordents in bars 38 and 49-50, an approach also favoured by his contemporary Grant Green.
Earlier mention was made of Wes exploiting the full range of the instrument, this is perhaps best illustrated between bars 39 and 42. He descends to his low F in bar 40 via a triplet run down the F major scale. In the very next bar he races up two conjoined arpeggios, hitting top F (four octaves higher) at the start of the following bar.
Bars 57-61 constitute another appealing phrase – one which balances rhythmic elements and melodic statements. The chromatic descending line in bar 59 is beautifully counterbalanced by the syncopated figure which it precedes. In bar 61 Wes retains the rhythm which begins bar 57, a small gesture indicative of the consistency of the entire chorus.