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A guitar master on the 50th anniversary
of his passing: Wes Montgomery

Blog
A guitar master on the 50th anniversary of his passing: Wes Montgomery

30.04.2018

Text: Cem Kayıran
Illustration: Saydan Akşit

An important icon not just of the jazz scene but of music history at large, we are now in the 50th year of guitarist Wes Montgomery’s passing at the peak of his career. An inspiration for countless artists, from Pat Metheny and George Benson to Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder, let’s take a look at the great legacy Montgomery left behind, through some of the highlights of his career.

- The third son from a musical family, Wes Montgomery was born in Indianapolis in 1923, however, compared to his brothers, started taking an interest in music at a relatively late age. It was at 20 that Montgomery joined his brothers who, throughout their youth, had been releasing albums and performing under the name Montgomery Brothers. The fact that Montgomery could easily play complex melodies and guitar phrases, even though he could not read music at that time, could most likely be explained as he came to master his instrument, in which he was self-taught, specifically by playing his idol Charlie Christian’s partitions note for note.

- With his signature style of guitar playing, especially in the thumb technique that he developed himself, Montgomery caught the eye of Lional Hampton and was a part of Hampton’s band for two years. Returning to Indianapolis following those two years and finding himself in a routine of working in a factory by day and playing clubs by night, there was another legend that then came to change Montgomery’s life. Cannonball Adderley, who heard him playing at a club, was instrumental in Montgomery signing to the famous record label, Riverside.

- Releasing more than 10 albums through Riverside over the course of six years, Montgomery added different sounds and approaches to his music through many different experiments, in addition to the albums he recorded with his brothers. Working with Cannonball Adderley on the album Poll-Winners, which was released in 1960, Montgomery’s following collaborative album with Milt Jackson, Bags Meet Wes!, and his album Fusion!, which features string arrangements by Jimmy Jones, stood apart from the other releases in his catalogue. However, the album to truly leave its mark on Wes Montgomery’s Riverside years and bring the musician considerable renown in the jazz scene was his fourth studio album, The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery.

- With Riverside closing its doors in 1964, a new curtain was thus raised on Wes Montgomery’s career, and the next stop for the celebrated guitarist was legendary label Verve Records, founded by Norman Granz. The effects of this change are clearly visible within Montgomery’s discography, with different orchestral arrangements prominently coming to the fore during his Verve era.

- While albums like Bumpin’ and Tequila heavily featured string instruments and Movin’ West brought wind instruments to the forefront, the Grammy-winning album Goin’ Out of My Head was, comparatively, prepared with much more extensive orchestration. Presenting jazz in a more widely accessible form in his albums of this time, Montgomery brought the characteristic relationship he cultivated with his instrument together with different genres and approaches.

- Signing with A&M Recordings together with Creed Taylor, who had undertaken the production of some of Montgomery’s albums released during the Verve years, the artist once again adopted a brand new approach with the third label of his career. Predominantly embracing pop melodies, Montgomery released the three albums that may be considered the pinnacle of his music career on A&M.

- Released back to back through the years 1967-1968, the albums A Day in the Life, Down Here on the Ground, and Road Song featured American trombonist and arranger Don Sebesky as Montgomery’s collaborator. Appealing to a wider audience with these three albums, all arranged and conducted by Sebesky, Montgomery had come to be one the era’s iconic figures, despite drawing a reaction from jazz audiences.

- During this time, with his career at its peak and his songs playing on radio primetime, Montgomery passed away at the age of just 45, after having a heart attack at his home in Indianapolis one summer day. He left behind a unique journey--demonstrating that how a musician forms a relationship with their instrument can infuse the music with character, as well as the returns of being bold enough to change and renew one’s self--and, naturally, a legacy that will nurture generations to come.

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