Album of the Week: Full House, Wes Montgomery

He’s not a household name the way Miles Davis or John Coltrane is, but guitarist Wes Montgomery deserves his place in the jazz pantheon. He’s one of the most important jazz guitarists in history, and this is my favorite album of his, Full House.

It’s a weird album for a couple reasons. First off, Wes Montgomery is probably best known for his later career as a soloist on cross-over tracks where he took popular melodies and played them in a jazz idiom with an orchestra backing him—a bit Muzak-y, honestly. Listening to this album, though, you could be excused for thinking it was an entirely different guitarist. Here he plays straight hard bop, with one or two ballads thrown into the mix. And he plays it well.

The second reason why it’s weird is because it’s a live album. I actually like live jazz albums, because with the improvisational nature of the music, every recording is to a certain extent “live.” On a true live album, jazz musicians in particular seem to always play their best. Maybe it’s because there’s a real crowd, or maybe it’s because the players have already played the material in concert.

You can hear by the way the band swings that everyone is supremely comfortable on this disc, which is hardly surprising given that three-fifths of the band is made up of the Wynton Kelly Trio (Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums), all jazz superstars in their own right who had plenty of practice playing together already. Jazz is difficult music to play when you’re agitated or nervous, so the nine-minute length of “Full House” helps the group settle down and lock in—not that they need much time. Wes breaks out his signature octaves on guitar at about 3:04, and Johnny Griffin’s tenor solo at 3:57 allows the horn player to show off his technical chops and loosen up.

“I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” starts out with a mysterious Spanish intro before moving into a really beautiful rendering of the show tune from “My Fair Lady.”  Wes’s chord melodies are warm and lush, and Cobb does a supremely understated job with the brushes. It’s sort of a collective intake of breath for the group before they drive the tempo back up for the next few tunes.

“Blue ‘n’ Boggie” is a nice track that features a pretty standard Wes solo (again, lots of octaves), but a really nice showing from Kelly on the piano at 2:54. Cobb swings like a madman on this one—listen to his playing behind the soloists, particularly around 1:30 and 3:30. He’s prodding the soloist, feeding them ideas and counterpoints to play off of.

“Cariba” is probably my favorite of the bunch, with a rock-solid Latin groove and a tricky harmonized lead from Wes and Griffin. Chambers gets the first solo, which is deeply, deeply funky (listen to him scat quietly around 1:04 if you’re listening on good speakers). The end of the solo is the best part—Cobb’s drum entrance at 1:24 is so slick. Midway through his solo around 4:57, Griffin begins honking into his horn, playing these weird rubbery licks with big blatty punctuation—kind of the same way James Brown would end a lyric with an “uungh!” I’ve listened to Wes’s solo so many times  that I can probably sing most of it. Everything about it is simultaneously impressive and tasteful— from his innovative blues lines to his fantastic sliding licks.

I’ve already written 566 words on this, and I should stop, but how can I not mention the great fat guitar tone on “Come Rain OR Come Shine” with Kelly’s great piano counterpoint? What about the blazing unison head of “S.O.S”? If anyone got this far in the album and doubted the musician’s technical proficiency, the first 40 seconds of this song should convince you.

There’s really so much to dig into here, and it bears repeated listening—no doubt serious jazz fans will be able to glean even more out of it than I have. Turn to this album particularly if you’re looking for a taste of Wes Montgomery at his most vital, if you still don’t think the guitar is a “real” jazz instrument, or if you just want nearly an hour of world-class music.