Throughout my years listening to Jazz music, guitar heavy albums were something I didn’t listen to much. Slowly, but surely that has begun to change. Today’s artist is one of the reasons why. With this 1965 release which is also a live performance, Wes Montgomery’s Smokin At The Half Note is a riveting 40 min plus performance that will have you bopping your head and tapping your feet for hours after you’ve finished listening to it. With essentially the Miles Davis rhythm section of Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums, this group’s chemistry only strengthens and amplifies Wes Montgomery’s playing and makes this group sound energetic and tight. So Let us begin by looking at the first track “No Blues”.
“No Blues” is a Miles Davis tune which makes sense for this group to play since this is Miles’ rhythm section. A brief intro with piano and drums starts the tune then Montgomery comes in with the melody. After the melody, Montgomery begins to solo. Notice the syncopation in his soloing. He matches hits with Cobb throughout his solo. The group is very locked in, listening to each other, and going wherever Montgomery takes them. His solo is very bluesy, very rhythmic, and very energetic thanks to those hits building energy amongst the band. Following Montgomery’s solo Wynton Kelly solo’s next on piano. Wynton Kelly always has a nice feel on blues tunes (See “Freddie Freeloader” on Kind of Blue”) so it’s no surprise that he kills it here. Lots of running eight lines, lots of bebop verbiage, and plenty of blues licks. Again, please listen to Jimmy Cobb on drums and Paul Chambers on bass. They are holding it down, and driving the band. Even when they are just playing time keepers it’s grooving real hard. Chambers take a solo of his own after Kelly is done and it sounds great. Kelly lays off for the most part only playing chords when appropriate,, Montgomery plays a soft, but percussive guitar, and Cobb is on brushes. Montgomery takes the tune out and “No Blues” ends right there.
Every track on this album deserves much attention, but as usual I will touch on a few personal favorites instead of a track by track analysis. Up next is “If You Could See Me Now” which is a beautiful ballad written by Tadd Dameron. This ballad is played to perfection with Kelly playing the head then soloing. Montgomery plays a nice melodic solo after wards which is perfect for this ballad. Wynton Kelly then plays the melody again and concludes the song.
The next tune on the album is “Unit 7” which was originally composed by Sam Jones. This tune begins with Wes Montgomery playing the melody. Following the melody Wynton Kelly takes the first solo. Again, Kelly is clearly using a lot of blues influenced lines. Still he does deviate from the blues where appropriate based on the harmonies being played. I don’t want to imply he just sheds blues over everything. Following his solo Montgomery solos as well. Again, Montgomery plays a logical. melodic, and at times percussive solo. I adore his playing throughout this album and this tune is no exception. Following his solo Montgomery plays the head and concludes the tune.
“Four on Six” is one of my favorite songs by Wes Montgomery and for me it’s a highlight on this album. The tempo here is a bit faster than the other tunes on this album. The signature bass line is established and the melody begins. Montgomery plays the melody which is no surprise since he composed the song. He also solos first following the melody. Montgomery plays a confident solo commanding his guitar and playing a diverse array of ideas over the progression. Kelly solos next and plays a bluesy melodic solo. Chambers also solos on this album which is a nice change of pace. He is one of the best bassists of all time so its nice to hear him solo. Then the band trades bars with each other which is another nice change of pace since that hasn’t been done on this album prior to this song. After the trading is done they play the melody again and end the song.
On my version of this iconic album I only have one more recording which is “What’s New” a ballad by Bob Haggart and Johnny Burke. I won’t go in depth on this song, but that doesn’t mean you should avoid it. In fact, its quiet beautiful. Wes Montgomery plays the head with such passion he really sets the mood right on this one. Anyway, Smokin At The Half Note is a must own for all Montgomery lovers, jazz lovers, and any fans of guitar led music in general. If you haven’t given it a listen yet please do so as soon as you can.