Wednesday 8 June 2011

Thoughts on Wes Montgomery

There there are a couple of reasons why, as a jazz guitarist, I have mixed feelings about Wes Montgomery. Don't get me wrong, Wes was a genius. His reputation is well deserved and he set a benchmark for high standards in improvisation, not just on guitar but on any instrument. The Incredible Jazz Guitar is one of my favourite jazz guitar albums of all time. So what are my reservations and why.

1. Guitarists influenced by Wes often end us sounding more like Wes than they do themselves (if that makes sense). I loved the work of Emily Remler, and her original material in particular (the album Catwalk). On standards territory she gets a bit too close to Wes and perhaps away from her own approach. From Wikipedia, this quote from People magazine in 1982 sums up her dilemma:
"I may look like a nice Jewish girl from New Jersey, but inside I’m a 50-year-old, heavyset black man with a big thumb, like Wes Montgomery." 
It can be really dangerous taking your influences too far. Much as many an alto sax player has never got beyond the influence of Charlie Parker, the danger with Wes is that once you're into him, you just can't get away from him. I think that George Benson took what Wes did and developed his own style but I've heard quite a few guitarists over the years who I think haven't managed to do this.

2. Wes's soloing is almost too exciting sometimes. What do I mean this? He plays really fast, he crams in a lot of ideas, you don't have a chance to absorb one before you're flying onto to the next one. This quote from Wikipedia just about sums it up:
"Listening to [Wes Montgomery's] solos is like teetering at the edge of a brink," composer-conductor Gunther Schuller asserted, as quoted by Jazz & Pop critic Will Smith. "His playing at its peak becomes unbearably exciting, to the point where one feels unable to muster sufficient physical endurance to outlast it."
I have to admit that, in part, this suspicion of Wes is partly envy. I'm not the only one. I remember reading a funny Jim Hall story about how he spent a day with Wes in San Francisco trying to get his thumb caught in taxi cab doors. Wouldn't it be nice to have his style down off pat? Wouldn't it impress other guitarists? That said, we're all individuals and following the muse means going where the music takes you. I often feel a stronger affinity to Grant Green. He digs into fewer ideas, leaves more space, constantly interacts with the rhythm section and, for me, has a stronger emotional punch (I'm thinking here of Idle Moments, one of my favourite jazz albums of all time). And he's a very exciting player without being overwhelming.

In recent years my own playing has moved more and more away from diatonic harmony as I stretch things further and further. In fact I've been going back to Wes and understanding more and more where his own harmonic sense comes from. In my last post I quoted Lee Konitz talking about slowing solos down. I've been doing this with Wes solos recently. Listening to them over and over on half speed before transcribing them. This gets around the Gunther Schuller problem of the solos being unbearably exciting because you can really listen to and absorb the idea. The solos sound brilliant at any speed, just a more manageable at a slower speed, giving you plenty to savour.

I can already feel the fear of Wes abating. It's just important that I steer away from his octave playing - that's his signature and his alone. Discuss!


Anonymous said...

I agree with much of what you say. Grant Green got me into jazz amongst a few others. Love Kenny Burrell's sound too, but the last few years I have had the same problem as Emily Remler. I just can't get away from Wes. Thankfully I never find the excitement unbearable but sometimes I'm not finding my own style but that will come as long as I remember that I shouldn't try to be anyone else.
However, two points to take issue with you. Wes himself was a Charlie Christian fanatic like many others and learnt solos note for note to play live. This didn't stop him finding his own style. Learning tricks and licks from one's idols is never a bad thing. Steal from the best. Secondly, I've heard many guitarists say that stay away from octaves for the same reason. I completely disagree. Octaves are no different to single-notes or chords and each in their respective ways makes us think differently in improvising as well. Equally, Wes showed us a way of using octaves on the guitar and wouldn't begrudge anyone from utilising octaves or quoting his lines from time to time - its fun.

John Harris said...

It's really useful learning solos note for note - I've been doing it with Wes recently just to see how he thinks about harmony and structured solos. That said, I wouldn't feel comfortable quoting more than the odd line in a gig situation.

I think you right about the octave thing - it is fun. Perhaps it's just best to avoid over-using them. I believe even Wes got tired of being told to play the octaves on later recording sessions.

Anonymous said...

Good points! Re 1., ditto Django Reinhardt. It seems these are two guitarists who to many guitarists are more than influences. Their playing has to be copied as closely as possible, often to the exclusion of other or their own styles. Perhaps the thinking is 'if I can play what a genius played, then I'm a genius too'. Wes initially copied Charlie Christian, but then developed his own style.

Re 2., I saw Wes play at Ronnie Scotts' back in the sixties, and great as it was, I remember that feeling of exhaustion setting in after an hour. Perhaps you can have too much of a good thing! On the other hand, it could have been the tranny Standel amp he used. The fatiguing sound of solid state amps not having the recognition it now has.

John Clarke

Anonymous said...

There's another thing about octaves we shouldn't forget. The sound! I made the first comment and would like to add that single-notes on the guitar don't pack the punch you sometimes want that octaves do. Wes wasn't the only one. I have two Ernest Ranglin ablums (Below the Baseline and Memories of Barber Mack) which demonstrate another great guitarist using octaves in completely different style. If you're like me and still working on block chords then octaves are a handy tool to liven up one's solos.
People will always idolise great musicians like Christian, Rheinhardt and Montgomery - its only testament to their influence that others should study their style - and natural. We learnt to talk through mimicking and music is just another language.
One final point. Guitarists often listen to too many other guitarists for ideas. Its beneficial to some time for a few others. A trumpeter friend of mine put me on to Clifford Brown's playing. Apart from all the technical details we can dissect about these players its the joy they convey in their music which is the most import lesson, in my humble opinion.

John Harris said...

Very valid point about listening to too many other guitar players. I like this quote from Peter Bernstein:

"If you want to learn about phrasing, hang out with horn players and good singers. And if you want to learn about rhythm, hang out with drummers and bass players. Don’t be a guitar player who hangs around other guitar players.”

Graham Thomas said...

I think it's ok as long you copy lots of other people besides Wes (and not just guitarists) and eventually it will all distil into your own approach hopefully. Actually I think his time is really hard to copy - the way he can place a simple phrase, or just one note, in relation to the beat. I once spent hours trying to nail one phrase like this and never really got it!
Django played octaves too, so that's my excuse to play them sometimes! - they're not just a Wes device.

Anonymous said...

There's an old adage from the scientific community, but it applies here - copy one person and it's plagiarism, copy many and it's 'research'.

I like Peter Bernstein's advice, John. If I want to really learn a song, I listen to a vocal version and learn the words.

John Clarke