Tuesday, October 11, 2005

CD Review by Mark Dalton

Wes Montgomery
Pacific Jazz/Blue Note CD

I'm sure all you readers out there have noticed that there is a lot of great jazz available these days, at very reasonable prices. Many of these fine sounds are available through CD reissue programs which are restoring to print some of the major jazz catalogs of the '50s and '60s. In fact, these programs are certainly encouraging the resurgence in interest in the classic small combo acoustic jazz of this era. Not long ago, these recordings were strictly on used vinyl and the exclusive province of cluttered jazz record shops, typically manned by aging, but extremely knowledgeable hipsters in the larger cities of the U.S.A. In addition to their great music, these albums were treasured for their cool cover photos (musicians in continental suits, women in sheath dresses, the cigarette smoke drifting languidly...), and their lengthy and informative liner notes. These discs were handled like delicate china, played only on the best of equipment (AR turntable, if you please!) and were passed from hand to hand among a dedicated group of collectors. No longer. I go into the Tower Records store here in Seattle, and I am dazzled by bins and bins full of lovingly remastered, thoroughly documented, and bargain priced reissues of classic Blue Note, Riverside, Prestige, and Pacific Jazz albums of yesteryear, to name just a few labels. I want to talk about one of these reissues here, but there is a longer story to this review.

The Montgomery Brothers, Buddy, Monk and Wes, were from Indiana. Buddy played vibes, and wrote a lot of nice tunes. Wes, of course, played electric guitar. He played with his thumb, because he liked the tone it got him. Playing with his thumb led him into playing octaves more frequently than most jazz guitarists (playing a melody line on two strings, simultaneously, an octave apart), which was to become a trademark, and, later in his career as a big money pop-jazz artist, a bit of a burden. Monk (above) played bass. Electric bass. He was the first jazz player to pick up Leo Fender's then-new invention, the Precision Bass, in the early 1950s. And brother, was he roasted for it at the time!

I can recall first reading in Downbeat about Monk's innovative step in the early sixties. One of the elder statesmen of jazz critics was completely mystified as to why an otherwise decent player would want to pick up such a worthless instrument. To lose the warmth of the wood in jazz seemed nothing short of criminal. Charles Mingus was still furious about this incursion some years later when an interviewer made the mistake of asking him about the changing role of the bass in jazz. "I'm not an electrician, man... a real bass player will tell you... once a microphone touches the wood, the wood is no longer wood. It's something beyond human control. Get rid of the steel strings if you want to hear good music, straight music. You must go back to gut."

I can appreciate Mr. Mingus's comments from a musician's perspective. Any player worth a nickel develops a strong love for, and bond with their instrument. You love the way it feels in your hands and you love the sounds you make together. Mr. Mingus spent years becoming an absolute master of the gut-stringed acoustic bass. That instrument, and the sound of that instrument is central to the music he made, and it defines the concept of "bass" for him.

But there have been other bass instruments used in jazz. If you go way back to the beginnings of jazz in New Orleans, the tuba was the bass instrument of choice, and to my ears, New Orleans jazz doesn't sound right without a tuba. There was musical progress made when jazz bands switched to the string bass, but something was lost as well.

Those kicking bass pedals in organ jazz are another example. When some players like Jimmy McGriff started adding electric bass to their tunes in the late '60s, to catch onto the funk thing happening then, the results were less than satisfying to many of us. Part of the attraction of the Hammond B3, and the jazz that has developed from it, is that deep surging pulse of bass from those pedals as an integral part of the sound. Without kicking pedals, the organ often seems to become just another instrument in the band.

The fact remains, however, that Mr. Fender's invention was not not well received in jazz circles. In a 1977 interview published in Tom Mulhern's excellent book: "Bass Heroes," Montgomery states that when he picked it up, "the electric bass was considered a bastard instrument - conventional players despised it." So why did he he start playing it? Because Lionel Hampton told him to, according to Montgomery. It was 1951 and he had just been hired for a tour (which stretched into a two-year steady gig) with the Hampton band, hired on as an upright player, when Mr. Hampton approached him one night, handed him a Fender Bass (one of the first made - 1951 was the year they went into production), and said "play this - it has the sound I want."

Monk Montgomery (on bass) with the Lionel Hampton Orchestra - 1955

Anyone who has heard recordings of the Hampton band around this time (I have a live album, recorded in Paris) knows they were one a hell of a loud, rocking organization, often edging closer to the rhythm and blues bands of the period than the sophisticated swing of the Goodman band. Montgomery's initial misgivings about the Fender Bass evaporated over time, as he realized he could hold the bottom for this band, be heard clearly and with an even volume from top to bottom of the fretboard, no matter how raucous the action got around him. Aside from a brief flirtation with with the standup during a gig with Cal Tjader in the mid-'60s ("it just wasn't the same.."), Montgomery never looked back.

To bring us back to the review then; after 30-some years of reading fleeting references to Monk Montgomery, variously describing him as a pioneer of the electric bass, and as a desecrator of jazz, I finally got a chance to hear the man play, for myself, with the CD release of some of Wes Montgomery's first sessions in an album called "Fingerpickin" on the Pacific Jazz/Blue Note label. The ten cuts on this album are culled from sessions recorded in Indianapolis on December 30, 1957, and at the Forum Theater in Los Angeles on April 22, 1958. There are lengthy liner notes with this set, copied from a 1975 double vinyl release, with additions for the CD. It may be worth noting that the only comment about Monk Montgomery's playing in these liner notes, new or old, is that he "confines himself to time keeping," and a general observation that this is "a good bebop rhythm section." Perhaps the authors thought they were being kind in not bringing up the bottom-end instrumentation!

So, how is it, you ask? It's a good album. The music ranges from the solid "hard bop" of the period - Energetic and feisty (the rollicking opening cut, "Sound Carrier" for example), to a tasty quartet arrangement of Hammerstein and Kern's classic ballad "All The Things You Are." Wes Montgomery is a blast on guitar - his thumb-style playing does give him an unusual tone and a slightly dirty edge to the sound when he really bears down. His playing is inventive, fresh, and distinctive right out of the gate. The famous octaves are present as embellishments, and they work well.

Brother Buddy is all over this collection on the vibes as well writing several of the tunes. Indeed, if I were to pick a session leader just on the evidence of music in these tracks, Buddy would be the obvious choice. Other players (including a seventeen year-old Freddie Hubbard making his recording debut) are fine, and the album hustles along in a well balanced set that any jazz lover will enjoy.

As for Brother Monk - steady as he goes! What you have here is mainstream jazz bass, walking all over the place, sliding notes, blasting along the fretboard highway on Charlie Parker's "Billies Bounce," stepping up front for a "Fever"-type introductory riff on "Bock To Bock"- All with the sound, the tone of the Fender Bass... Nice fat, well defined notes. No drop-off notes due to the peculiarities of a vibrating sound board. If "confining himself to keeping time" means Monk isn't dancing up to the front of the stage for a roaring electric solo ala Jaco Pastorious (that came later!), it's okay with me. If it means he isn't climbing on a battered "doghouse" upright to slap, thump and ride it across the stage as some of our crowd-pleasing rockabilly brethren are wont to do, that's okay too. When I listen to this music, I can see Monk Montgomery up there on stage, with his Fender Bass well-polished, a dark continental suit and a skinny tie, button down collar and wing-tipped shoes. Seven and Seven for sipping between tunes. Looking and sounding sharp.

A modest revolutionary, perhaps. Cool, you know? But a revolutionary all the same. Committed to the sound and feel of the instrument he fell in love with, just like Charles Mingus. My hat is off to you, Monk, wherever you are!

Originally from Nebraska, Mark Dalton moved to Seattle in the early '70s. He is an accomplished bassist and stalwart bluesman. He currently plays with the Chris Stevens Band. Photo by Ronda Lee.

Lionel Hampton photo from the Lionel Hampton Story web page.

1 comment:

Mike Lynch said...

I uused to work with a bassist in Seattle by the name of Doug Royce. He came up playing acoustic bass in big bands, and told me that his switch to electric bass wasn't too popular with his fellow musicians at first either. When I played with doug in the late '80s he was playing a hollow-bodied Gibson bass (it looked sort of like an ES-335 guitar), which he played with a pick. He told me that the Gibson bass had a more "natural" or acoustic sound to his ears. I wonder what ever became of Doug, anyway?