Smokin' at the Half Note
Live Jazz from a Guitar Titan
Here's yet another woeful example of how the barons of the record industry haven't always been the best caretakers of music. When Creed Taylor, the producer and executive then working at Verve Records, heard these recordings made by Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly trio at New York's Half Note in June of 1965, he told the musicians that only two tracks were worthy of release—"No Blues" and "If You Could See Me Now." Taylor booked studio time for September, and captured several more songs, which were added to the live cuts and released as the (misnamed) original Smokin' at the Half Note.
At the time, Montgomery was an established star, responsible for several snapping records that revolutionized jazz guitar, among them Boss Guitar and Full House. And though the Half Note sessions caught him in peak form, playing with one of the most accomplished rhythm sections of the day—his friend and pianist Kelly, drummer Jimmy Cobb, and bassist Paul Chambers—Montgomery didn't fight Taylor. Not long after this date Montgomery and Taylor embarked on a series of successful, if largely saccharine, instrumental pop records. Then in 1968 the guitarist suffered a heart attack and died suddenly.
That's when the original misjudgment about the Half Note material was compounded: In the rush to offer the public anything by the late Montgomery, the label went back to the Half Note session, and added brass and woodwinds to several tracks, releasing it on an album called Willow Weep for Me. Talk about a clunker: The sizzling, never-before-heard live Montgomery was muddled up with excessive, utterly pointless arrangements. Not until 2004 were these recordings available without the appended orchestra.
They're essential listening—for the knifing clarity of Montgomery's lines and the rapid rejoinders of his accompanists, for the way he plucks ideas out of thin air, for the palpable texture of his blocky trademark octaves and elegant whiplash chords, for the flash of invention that is "Impressions" and the dolorous, questioning spirit that propels "What's New?" No matter what any executive says, this is one no-nonsense, never-to-be-improved-upon document of live jazz.
Released: 1965, Verve (Reissued 2004)
Key Tracks: "Impressions," "No Blues," "If You Could See Me Now."
Catalog Choice: Full House; Boss Guitar
Next Stop: Wynton Kelly: Kelly Blue
After That: Jim Hall: Concierto
Book Pages: 516–517