Jazz and blues

Wes Montgomery and Thelonius Monk: early recordings fill in gaps

CD compilations of recordings made early in the careers of these two jazz greats, accompanied by extensive essays, are worth investing in

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:47pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 06 June, 2015, 11:51pm

Like most music lovers, I now spend more on downloads than physical CDs. The prices are generally lower and sometimes the MP3 versions include PDFs of the CD booklets, but even if you disregard sound quality issues, the experience is somehow less satisfying than buying music in physical form.

For that reason, recently in London I spent the equivalent of HK$700 in Ray's Jazz at Foyles on music I could have bought from iTunes for half as much or less. It simply feels better to have the newly unearthed Wes Montgomery archive recordings, In the Beginning, sitting on the shelf next to Echoes of Indiana Avenue than to have them filed together on a hard drive or in an iPod.

Echoes, which came out in 2012, shed new light on Montgomery's early career in Indianapolis before he made his national breakthrough after signing with Riverside Records in 1959. With In the Beginning - a two-CD package which includes a 55-page booklet of essays and interviews - a previously under-documented period (from 1949 to 1958) in the career of one of the greatest guitarists in jazz can now be properly appreciated.

This should be treated as a companion volume to Echoes. For those who don't insist on physical CDs, that and In the Beginning are available from iTunes with the digital booklets at a bargain price of HK$151 for the pair.

Whichever version you buy, the sound quality, of course, falls short of the standards achievable for live recordings today. But on the first disc you do get a sense of the atmosphere of Indianapolis' Turf Club in 1956 when Montgomery was playing there with his brothers - with Buddy on piano and Monk on bass - alongside drummer Sonny Johnson and tenor saxophonist Alonzo Johnson (no relation).

The notes in the booklet fill out the picture further. All members of the band were black, but the club was for whites only. Buddy Montgomery, who died in 2009 leaving behind an unpublished memoir from which an excerpt is included, recalled a night when bandleader-composer Count Basie and singer Sarah Vaughan came to see the band, and were barred at the door. The musicians, who were the club's major draw and had packed the place, stopped playing and refused to restart unless those special guests were admitted.

They were, and afterwards, according to Buddy Montgomery: "They let a few [black] people come in every now and then. They had to. When I left it was good riddance for me, to a certain extent. I got out here [the US West Coast] and everything was so much better."

In addition to the Turf Club recordings, In the Beginning includes a home-rehearsal take of Milt Jackson's Ralph's New Blues with Wes Montgomery playing bass, and three tracks from a show at another Indianapolis club, The Missile Lounge. The rest of the album is made up of an extended version of the Jerome Kern standard All the Things You Are recorded in 1957 at the C&C Music Lounge in Chicago, early studio recordings made in 1949 in Fresno, California, and four tracks recorded by Quincy Jones at Columbia Studios in New York City in 1955.

Another worthwhile new archive release, packaged with extensive and illuminating notes, is Thelonious Monk Solo 1954-1961, which at the time of writing is not yet available as a digital download.

This two-CD, 37-track compilation is packaged as a booklet with a useful discography of Monk's original recordings and an essay on his career - with particular reference to the unaccompanied recordings, and to his performances, recorded and otherwise in France - by Rémi Raemackers, printed in both French and English.

Monk as a soloist is not to all tastes. Keith Jarrett is not the only great jazz pianist to make annoying noises that the microphone picks up as he plays, and those who like jazz solos to be slick will find some of this music jarring. But the CD will repay repeated listening. As Dizzy Gillespie said: "Deep. The Monk is Deep".

Take Three

A trio of compilations to check out.

The Centennial Collection  (2015, Sony Legacy): there are any number of Billie Holiday compilations readily available, but for those unfamiliar with much of her work this single-disc collection, released to mark this year's centenary of her birth, is a good start.

Blue Moods (2015, Poll Winners Records): not just guitarist Kenny Burrell's classic 1957 Blue Moods album, but also his hard-to-find Bright's Spot trio set, and three bonus tracks featuring him with Thad Jones, Kenny Clarke and Oscar Pettiford.

Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers at the Free Trade Hall 1961 (2015, Solar Records): a fine and previously unreleased live set featuring one of the great Jazz Messengers line-ups - Blakey, Lee Morgan, Wayne Shorter, Bobby Timmons and Jymie Merritt - recorded in Manchester in 1961.