The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery is considered by many to be the peak of Montgomery’s recorded work. Stuck firmly between his organ-driven works and his later, more popular/R&B-style recordings, this album finds Montgomery paired with a first-rate jazz rhythm section comprised of Tommy Flannagan, Percy Heath, and Albert Heath, and the guitarist is more than up to the challenge.
Basically this is a hard bop album, with the group swinging out hard on “Airegin, Montgomery’s “Four on Six,” and “West Coast Blues.” “Mr. Walker” suggests a relaxed Brazilian samba, but Montgomery’s fingers are all over the fretboard, playing fast while keeping each note clear and distinct. His trademark thumb-picking style and extensive use of octaves are both in full bloom, even at this early stage. Listening to this, his second Riverside release, no one could have doubted that the most important jazz guitarist since Charlie Christian had arrived.
The two ballads here, “Polka Dots and Moonbeams” and Dave Brubeck’s “In Your Own Sweet Way” are given gorgeous, sensitive readings. Montgomery was much more than a major technician on his instrument, and his tone and emotional ability on electrically amplified guitar were equally important to his legacy. Tommy Flanagan’s piano work is the perfect complement to Montgomery’s guitar: understated and elegant, yet capable of commanding its own attention when thrust into the foreground.
It’s well-documented lore that Montgomery was ‘discovered’ by Cannonball Adderley one night while playing in an Indianapolis club. Adderley’s brother, Nat, recorded his classic album Work Song, which also featured Montgomery (as well as Percy Heath), at the same time as these sessions, all completed within a few days. That’s how jazz sessions used to be recorded, and Orrin Keepnews offers plenty of reminiscences in the liner notes that will bring jazz fans new and old back into that time period. Work Song has recently also been reissued as part of the Keepnews Collection, and taken together with Incredible Jazz Guitar, offers an excellent snapshot of the incredible talent of Wes Montgomery.