Wes Montgomery

As far as classic jazz albums go, Smokin’ at the Half Note is always a sleeper. Wes Montgomery’s style is effortless and fluid, rhythmically smooth and groovy—nothing ever comes off as angular or jutting. As you move through his other albums like Groove Yard, Boss Guitar, or Movin’ Wes, it’s clear they all have these qualities, especially when he locks in with pianists and B-3 players like Wynton Kelly or Jimmy Smith.

These albums have always invoked the images of Montgomery playing, cigarette dangling from mouth, hands looming over his beloved Gibson L-5CES. But there’s never been any great film footage of the jazz legend doing what he did best. That is, until now.

The second installment of the Jazz Icons DVD releases on the Naxos label (other artists for this round include John Coltrane, Charles Mingus, Sarah Vaughn, Dexter Gordon, Dave Brubeck, and Duke Ellington) captures Montgomery leading various piano trios throughout Europe in 1965. It also captures the essence of what made Montgomery the incomparable jazz legend that he is.

Wes Montgomery Live in '65

The song selection leans toward a mix of Montgomery’s straight-ahead jazz, as opposed to his more funk and groove-oriented material. Most notable among the 13 songs are “Impressions,” “Four on Six,” “Nica’s Dream,” “Here’s That Rainy Day,” and “The End of a Love Affair.” But what’s most enlightening is not what he plays, nor hearing him play, but rather watching him play. At long last we get to see Montgomery affably chatting, smiling and crossing his legs, all with an ease that suggests he was quite comfortable in this musical setting.

We also get to observe Montgomery’s distinct style of picking, where he plucked the strings with the fleshy part of his thumb, using downstrokes for single notes and a combination of upstrokes and downstrokes for chords and octaves. In his tribute album to Montgomery, guitarist George Benson wrote that, “Wes had a corn on his thumb, which gave his sound that point. He would get one sound for the soft parts, and then that point by using the corn. That's why no one will ever match Wes. And his thumb was double-jointed. He could bend it all the way back to touch his wrist, which he would do to shock people.”

Benson himself, inspired by Montgomery, played a Gibson (usually a “Johnny Smith” model) throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, including on Breezin’, one of the best selling jazz albums of all time.

Indeed, Montgomery’s talents have inspired a generation of guitarists. And watching him maneuver through a set of his classic standards leaves no doubt he will keep inspiring for many generations to come.

Included with the DVD is a 24-page booklet with liner notes penned by Pat Metheny, and an afterword by Carlos Santana.