Album review

Wes Montgomery – ‘The NDR Hamburg Studio Recordings’

Wes Montgomery – The NDR Hamburg Studio Recordings
(Jazzline Classics D77078. 1 CD +1 Blu-Ray DVD. Or Vinyl . Album review by Denny Ilett)

It goes without saying that any new release bearing Wes Montgomery’s name is a highly-anticipated and welcome event. The last few years, particularly, saw important and valuable releases from Resonance Records. In The Beginning (REVIEW)and Back On Indiana Avenue (REVIEW) found unknown recordings Wes had made in a variety of settings before his ‘discovery’ by Cannonball Adderley in the late 50’s, a discovery that led to his signing to Riverside Records in 1959. In Paris, a live double CD set from Montgomery’s infamous 1965 trip to Europe, made up a wonderful trilogy for which Resonance are to be applauded.

Now it’s the turn of Jazzline Classics to increase the Montgomery canon with the first official release of Wes’s legendary sessions at the NDR Studio in Hamburg.

Disc One is the full concert/broadcast from 30 April 1965 one month after In Paris and immediately after Wes’ first stint at Ronnie Scott’s club. Wes is backed by Martial Solal on piano, Michel Gaudry on bass and Ronnie Stephenson on drums who’d backed Wes at Ronnie’s as part of Stan Tracey’s trio. Stephenson was also one of the ‘first-call’ drummers for the NDR Big Band. What makes the session unique is that the quartet are supplemented by a four man saxophone team of Hans Koller, Johnny Griffin, Ronnie Scott and Ronnie Ross; the one and only time Wes worked within this formation.

Well-known Montgomery compositions such as West Coast Blues, Four On Six and Twisted Blues sit alongside the standard Here’s That Rainy Day plus contributions from Ronnie Ross in Last Of The Wine and Blue Grass. The set also includes Griffin’s The Leopard Walks, Solal’s Opening 2 and Thelonious Monk’s blues classic Blue Monk. Between them Solal, Ross and Griffin supply the horn charts for their respective compositions with Ross also scoring West Coast Blues.

It probably goes without saying that Wes is in supreme form throughout and is clearly enjoying playing in this unusual line-up. His solos are so full of joyous surprises one can almost imagine his fingers dancing across the fingerboard of his Gibson L-5. Always a humble and generous soul, Wes gives solo space to each saxophonist, and Solal’s piano, as the set unfolds giving those guitar geeks among us ample opportunity to hear what a great accompanist he also was.

Sound quality, as one would expect from the NDR Studio, is excellent, with Montgomery’s sumptuous guitar tone captured perfectly in all its full-fat glory! The way Wes throws himself into the original compositions from the other band members is truly heartwarming. It’s well documented that Wes could be shy among musicians of the calibre of those present here but, it’s not noticeable on this session. The clear empathy and interplay within the group overrides any trepidation he may have felt going into this project; the result being a highly productive and sublime moment in the great guitarists tragically short career.

Onto Disc Two and we find ourselves in rehearsal, two days earlier, as the group run the charts down and work out what goes where. The fact that this was filmed and is presented here on Blu-Ray with truly excellent sound and picture quality makes this one of those treasured documents in jazz history. Despite the fact the rehearsal film has been circulating for some time, this release renders all other versions obsolete for the sheer quality of sound and vision. Wes and the group work through five tunes with only On Green Dolphin Street, a feature for Solal, not making it into the concert programme two days later.

Aside from Montgomery’s immense contribution it’s also beautiful to see the likes of Ronnie Scott and Johnny Griffin as strong, young men jousting away on their tenors as well as being reminded of just what a fabulous, swinging and creative drummer Ronnie Stephenson was.

Ultimately, the whole set serves as a reminder of how jazz brought, and continues to bring, together musicians from disparate backgrounds with a shared vision to create music that transcends all the trials and tribulations that life tries to throw at them. As for Wes himself, 1965 found him on the verge of his journey into “commercial” music much-maligned by the sort of fans that will love this session.

Tragically, within three years, he’d succumb to a heart attack but, here we are, fifty-three years after his premature passing, with another reminder of why his fantastic guitar playing will never be silenced.

Wes Montgomery – The NDR Hamburg Studio Recordings is released on 9 April 2021.

LINK: Album link at UK distributor Proper

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