Wes Montgomery – In the Beginning (review)

Wes Montgomery – In the Beginning (Resonance Records) review

A treasure trove of rare recordings, lavishly packaged, lovingly annotated

Wes Montgomery is unquestionably one of the pillars of modern electric guitar.  The fact that Resonance Records has found two discs worth of rare and unreleased material from him is a real find – guitar fans rejoice with In the Beginning!

When a legendary artist passes away, there’s usually a glutton of unreleased material that floods the market, mostly of dubious quality (Jimi Hendrix, anyone?).  In Montgomery’s case, this collection represents only the third such release since his untimely death in 1968 at the age of 45.  What makes In the Beginning such a revelation is that it shows the guitarist in an embryonic stage, before many of his signature elements had become part of his playing.  Many of these tracks are played with a youthful vigor – an approach he would soon abandon for a more laid back style.

The first thirteen tracks on the set are live recordings from the Turf Club in Indianapolis, Montgomery’s hometown, in 1956.  These feature the Montgomery-Johnson Quintet, with Wes on guitar, and brothers Buddy on piano and Monk on bass, along with “Pookie” Johnson on sax and Sonny Johnson on drums.  These recordings are of excellent quality and feature some fine playing, especially on Miles Davis’ “Four” and Duke Ellington’s “Caravan.”  Although these performances were not meant simply to spotlight Wes, when given the chance, he does dazzle, especially on “Wes’ Tune.” What surprises the most, is how fast Wes plays – all of this using his thumb.  This is followed by a home recording featuring Wes not on guitar, but on bass, running through the Milt Jackson tune “Ralph’s New Blues.”

Disc two leads off with three tracks recorded at the Missile Lounge in Indy in 1958.  The highlight here is “Robbin’s Nest,” where Wes shows off some of his octave-laden fretwork that would become part of his signature sound in a lengthy solo.

Next, we jump back to 1955 for five studio cuts recorded for Epic Records, produced by the soon-to-be-legendary Quincy Jones.  These range from the hard bop of “Love For Sale,” to the gorgeous ballad “Leila,” and the proto-rock n’ roll “Blues.”  These tracks aren’t mind-blowing – they were meant to be released as singles, so they were kept brief.  Yet, it’s still amazing these haven’t seen the light of day until now.

Next is a live recording of “All the Things You Are” from the C&C Music Lounge in 1957.  The quality isn’t so good, yet Wes is on fire, tearing off block chords and whipping the crowd into a frenzy.  Closing out the collection are three of the earliest examples of Wes on record  – cut back in 1949 as a sideman for Gene Morris & His Harptones on the Spire record label.   The King Cole Trio-esque “Smooth Evening” gives Wes the chance to solo for a few bars, otherwise he’s in the background.

The accompanying booklet is chock full of rare photos and numerous essays from jazz aficionados and family members, all giving their unique take on the early days of this amazing guitarist.  Even rocker Pete Townshend shares a heartfelt memory between he and his dad.

In this digital download-dominated world, Resonance Records has put out something that you have to own physically – just getting the mp3’s is only half the story.  In the Beginning shows the early, baby steps of one of the pioneers of modern guitar.  —Tony Peters