Here’s a clip of pick-dissing, thumb-picking jazz guitar savant Wes Montgomery with one of my favourite numbers of his, a take on John Coltrane’s “Impressions”. The most famous version of Montgomery’s can be found on the live album Willow Weep for Me featuring his work from the seminal Smokin’ At the Half Note sessions, also featuring Paul Chambers on bass, Wynton Kelly on piano, and James Cobb on drums – the same rhythm section Miles Davis employed on his landmark album Kind of Blue.

Wes Montgomery 1965
Montgomery learned guitar late in life for a jazz musician – at the seasoned age of twenty. Although he played professionally with Lionel Hampton at the end of the 1940s, he was a part-time musician by the 50s, holding down day jobs and practicing late at night. He avoided picks because it was easier to play quietly using his thumb, so as not to disturb his family during his late-night practice sessions. By the early 60s, he’d signed with legendary jazz label Verve, and his real success began, recording instrumental versions of pop songs, but also playing straight ahead hard bop with a level of skill equal to any jazz player you can think of.

In this clip, Montgomery is on tour later in the year with an entirely different group of musicians (Harold Mabern on piano, Arthur Harper on bass, and Jimmy Lovelace on drums, all pictured in the clip).  Nineteen Sixty-Five was a busy year for Montgomery, putting out several albums and touring them abroad as well as on domestic club dates.

By the time touring commenced, he had something to prove to jazz critics, who’d all thought he’d gone soft by putting out more instrumental pop-oriented material. But, the tour blew any doubts out of the water, as did his live albums recorded during that period.  Montgomery was at the height of his powers here, with his unique thumb-picking style that denied all logic, but was undeniable in terms of execution.

He had less than three years to live by the time this footage was recorded, dying too soon and very suddenly in 1968 as the result of a heart attack at the age of 43.  But, he made the most out of his last years by being one of the most influential jazz guitarists ever to have drawn breath, up there with his heroes Django Reinhardt and Charlie Christian, both of whom also revolutionized jazz guitar. Montgomery continues to influence guitarists today, with his approach to tone and phrasing being a part of the unwritten textbook of jazz improvisation.

For more about Wes Montgomery, check out actor Anthony Montgomery’s site, Wes’ grandson. You may recognize him as Ensign Travis Merriweather from the television series Star Trek:Enterprise, among other roles.

And of course, get a greater sample of the man’s music by visiting this Wes Montgomery MySpace Page.

Enjoy!

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