Wes Montgomery – Back on Indiana Avenue: The Carroll DeCamp Recordings
(Resonance Recordings. HCD2036. CD Review by Mike Rud*)
Wes Montgomery’s music swings… and shines, bounces, delights and comforts. His is a warm and endlessly witty presence not unlike that of Charlie Parker. Never once, on any of his recordings, does he seem to lose his spark. The freshness and melodic inventiveness are ever-present and what comes across is his love for the audience. This is a man who never forgot to pack his music with joy.
So, on the face of it, any newly-discovered Wes recording is important. He means that much to the art form. But this release is of considerably more than merely historical interest. It gives Wes fans a lost, magical lens into his creative process.
For all of us Wes-obsessed guitarists, the question is always hanging there: how did he actually do it? How much of his miraculous vocabulary and in-the-moment freedom was something he prepared? I recall the gorgeous 1980s Riverside/Fantasy release The Alternative Wes Montgomery, as being maddening for me as a young guitar student. It showed us Wes’ improvised solos on the alternate takes from albums like Boss Guitar and Full House. Here we had a chance to hear Wes improvise over and over again on the same song. His soloing seemed to vary so much from one attempt to the next, and they were all astonishingly inventive, as though he were a fountain of constantly inspiring ideas. It felt like we never heard him simply playing like a mortal. By the time people started recording Montgomery, he was already playing with an aplomb and a self-collection that beggars belief. Wes really did just seem to have emerged fully-formed, like Athena popping straight out of Zeus’ forehead, with every little turn, every little flourish in his playing already finely sanded, painted, varnished.
For me anyway, that was a bit frustrating. How were we supposed to get a clue about the process of creating this calibre of art? Well for one thing, we’re just not going to find some royal road to thinking like Wes, any more than we will find a way to speak like Oscar Wilde. Part of creating your own art is accepting that fact.
But… on Back on Indiana Avenue, we do get a couple of important clues as to how Wes organized his thinking. That’s because there are renditions of songs that have become the very core of Wes’ work: Four on Six, Mr. Walker, Tune Up and West Coast Blues. In some of these, we hear the very same melodic ideas that he later used in the canonical recordings of those same songs. Wes executes it all with his characteristic flawless charm of course, but what a relief to know that he had a set of clear, identifiable musical ideas, which he placed in these solos. It wasn’t always brand-new material. He knew something about how he wanted to compose these moments that he could make feel so extemporaneous.
The liner notes for Back on Indiana Avenue give a thoroughly satisfying history of how the recordings emerged, as well as clearing up how a similarly excellent CD, Echoes of Indiana Avenue, came to be. Especially interesting to guitarists are the exclusive interviews with George Benson and John Scofield. The liner notes also let us hear from others central to the survival and publication of these tapes (Jamey Aebersold, Zev Feldman, and guitarist Royce Campbell, nephew of the Pianist Carroll DeCamp, a central figure in the preservation of these precious tracks).
And what a music scene they had back then in Indianapolis! It’s a treat to hear Wes accompanied so beautifully by notable performers like brothers Buddy and Monk Montgomery, Carl Perkins, Mel Rhyne, David Baker and others.
The album features Wes in many different settings: piano quartet, organ trio, sextet with horns, and drumless piano trios of the Nat Cole variety. Some of the tracks have a slightly less glossy sound quality than others, which doesn’t at all detract. Back on Indiana Avenue is a wonderful listen and a crucial document. We owe thanks to Resonance Records and pianist Carroll DeCamp, for making this a reality. They have done a first-rate job.
A Word on Some of The Tracks
Four On Six is delivered in a chilled-out tempo. In Wes’ solos, we hear some of the exact ideas he later plays on the Incredible Jazz Guitar version. His overall approach and spirit shows a remarkable similarity to that of the classic recording. What a treasure this track is.
The Devil and The Deep Blue Sea and Stompin’ at the Savoy are performed at light speed. The preternatural relaxation Wes would later show on cuts like Boss Guitar’s Dearly Beloved is already in place by this point in his development. Wes just tosses out these phrases with irresistibly infectious articulation.
It’s You or No One – holy moly, that tempo! But this cut also contains something I don’t believe I’ve heard elsewhere from Wes: in his accompaniment, behind the wonderful piano and bass solos, Wes does his version of a quarter-note-based comping, where he changes the chord on every single beat! It’s almost like Wes’ response to Freddie Green, Count Basie’s quarter-note-comping master guitarist.
Four On Six
The End of A Love Affair
West Coast Blues
It’s You Or No One
Nothing Ever Changes My Love For You
Stompin’ at the Savoy
It’s You or No One (Take 2)
Opus De Funk
Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea
I’ll Remember April
The Song Is You
(*) Mike Rud is a Canadian guitarist and guitar teacher. His album Notes on Montreal won a Juno Award in 2014. He has a new album with fellow guitarist Peter Bernstein in preparation.