Graded on a Curve: Wynton Kelly Trio and Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ at the Half Note

Wes Montgomery remains one of the undisputed greats of Modern Jazz guitar. To hear the man at his best is to luxuriate in the elevated energies of Smokin’ at the Half Note, an LP co-billing him with the impeccable trio of pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. That set has been freshly reissued in Verve/UMe’s Acoustic Sound Series, and for consumers of vinyl with a passion for post-bop jazz, its acquisition is absolutely essential.

As “No Blues” opens Smokin’ at the Half Note it becomes rapidly clear the album’s title is wholly accurate, though in fact it only communicates part of the release’s reality, as the three tracks on side two, the Sam Jones composition “Unit 7,” the Montgomery original “Four on Six” and the standard “What’s New?,” were cut in studio in September of 1965. The visit to Van Gelder’s Hackensack, NJ studio, reportedly at the behest of producer Creed Taylor, occurred roughly three months after the band’s engagement at the New York City club; the LP hit stores in November of that year.

The studio side, if a tad more composed in execution than the two live cuts, does not falter. But really, it’s “No Blues” that has firmly established this record’s reputation as a must-own, with the track’s gripping nature reflected in the release’s shared billing. Having formed through an association with trumpeter Miles Davis in 1958 and heard together on one track, “Freddie Freeloader,” on Davis’ Kind of Blue, plus the entirety of its follow-up Someday My Prince Will Come (where “No Blues” was first recorded under the tile “Pfrancing”), the triumvirate cut numerous albums as a working band.

The trio’s familiarity with Montgomery was long-established. They are heard together, with the addition of tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin, on Full House, cut for Riverside in 1962. In short, Kelly, Cobb, and Chambers knew each other well, they knew “No Blues” well, and they knew Montgomery well. This explains the cut’s casual energy in showcasing the guitarist’s technical skill and in how he seamlessly integrates those heightened abilities into a swinging post-bop scenario par excellence.

Casual? Around three minutes into “No Blues,” Kelly just stops playing, the better to fully experience Montgomery tearing it up. Or so one story goes, anyway. As the guitarist was truly on fire on this night, the lore isn’t difficult to believe. But the casual atmosphere might be better expressed as comfortable; everyone on the bandstand is fully engaged, with Kelly’s solo following Montgomery (and Chambers after him) also a treat.

After “No Blues,” the band cools the temperature with the Tadd Dameron standard “If You Could See Me Now,” Montgomery downshifting from burnin’ and struttin’ into a solo of considerable sensitivity. But the playing is still collectively sturdy, so that a late bluesy upswing delivers the album one of its highlights.

Along with Van Gelder’s fuller production, a sharpened focus is immediately noticeable on the studio side along with an increased sense of panache, even in opening cooker “Unit 7.” But not too sophisticated, as “Four on Six” retains the energy, with Montgomery off to the races, followed by Kelly, Chambers (this time arco), and then Jones in the spotlight. The closing ballad turn “What’s New?” reinforces the band’s acumen; there’s nothing groundbreaking going on across either of the album’s sides, it’s just post-bop consummately played.

Additional songs from the Half Note engagement were posthumously released by Verve in 1969 under Montgomery’s name as Willow Weep for Me, but with wind and brass arrangements by Claus Ogerman added to four of the seven tracks. Many emphatically decry this tinkering, and yes, Verve shouldn’t’ve done it, but the results don’t sound horrible.

There is a brazenly mercantile aura to Willow Weep for Me that’s inescapable; it surely played a part in subsequent issues of the material being shorn of Ogerman’s contribution (a rather stunning about face, given the original LP won a GRAMMY). With the exception of a live take of “Four on Six,” the Ogerman-less versions were added to the 2005 CD release of Smokin’ at the Half Note, all worthy additions, although it is the indispensable core document that’s been reissued on vinyl by Verve/UMe.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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