Effortless Genius

  9 minute read

The unique appeal of Wes Montgomery

A Portrait of Wes Montgomery (Illustration courtesy of Aravind Iyer)

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There is something about the effortlessness of a natural performer that makes us watch in awe. It could a gifted athlete1 playing your favourite sport, a genius actor playing a challenging role or an accomplished musician delivering an inspired performance. But we know it immediately when we are watching a special performance — one that transcends skill and preparation and yet looks ridiculously easy2 and almost inevitable. That is the reason that even among the best sportspersons or artists, the ones that make it look easy are the ones that stand out. So when a guitar player I knew described Wes Montgomery as “effortless genius”, I thought I knew what he was getting at. Needless to say, I wanted to get a Montgomery record or two, as soon as possible.

I went down to Von’s Records3, on a cool evening in Fall 2002. For some reason, there was no Wes Montgomery CD in the display racks. Upon asking for help, I was directed to a couple of tall stacks of discs which unfortunately were not sorted in any particular order. I chanced upon “The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery” and my rushed browsing was stopped in its tracks. I could not help but feel a mild scepticism for what I then thought a pretentiously named album. But I could find no other Montgomery album. So, with some reluctance, I bought The Incredible Jazz Guitar. Given that Montgomery was a down-to-earth man by most accounts, as I learned later, it is quite likely that the album producer Orrin Keepnews had something to do with the album’s title.

Of course, Keepnews, co-founder of Riverside, a major jazz label4 in the 50’s, was not without due reasons for his enthusiasm with the album. Keepnews had flown down to Indianapolis in 1959 to listen to Montgomery, upon the insistence of Cannonball Adderley, a great saxophonist. “I’ve heard this great guitarist. We’ve got to get him for the label”, Adderley had recommended. Keepnews was so impressed with Montgomery’s playing that he “melodramatically” offered him an exclusive recording contract with Riverside. In Keepnews’ words5, “And Wes, on the spot, signed with Riverside as dawn broke over Indianapolis on that day in the fall of 1959.” Looking back, Keepnews’ confidence in Montgomery’s guitar work has certainly been justified with legions of glowing tributes and reviews dedicated to the Incredible Jazz Guitar and other records.

Certainly, my downbeat feeling about the album’s title was well and truly dispelled when I heard it. That signature guitar sound from Montgomery’s thumb picking6, mellow and rounded at the same time as being crisp and well-defined, it immediately made an impression. Then there was the tight and able rhythm section of Tommy Flanagan on piano, and brothers Percy Heath and Albert Heath on bass and drums, respectively. But perhaps the most significant aspect of all was the ease with which the music was laid down, like it was just another day in the office. Modern day guitar guru, Joe Satriani offers his insight7 into how remarkable it was that a single take recorded one afternoon, could just be put on a record, and yet be so effortlessly tasteful. To quote Satriani, “They probably cut these records in three hours. And Wes never made a mistake. I remember thinking to myself: How does a guy play every note and it’s totally tasty, not one extra note in there?”

To add another astonishing element to Montgomery’s genius, he was a self-taught musician. He started using his thumb instead of a plectrum for not wanting to disturb people while he practised. He found that it gave him a more rounded and mellower sound, but he developed the ability to make it sound clear and defined too. He is certainly known to have practised a lot. But he is also known to have had a sense of humor. In fact there is a wickedly cool quote attributed8 to him — “I never practice my guitar. From time to time I just open the case and throw in a piece of raw meat.” Whether or not he really said that, his genius is evident in The Incredible Jazz Guitar. From the searing pace of Airegin, the quiet and soft Polka Dots and Moonbeams, through the straight-ahead Four on Six, till the latin rhythm of Mr. Walker, Montgomery, Flanagan and the Heaths lay down a cohesive and compelling showcase of jazz guitar. Its appeal is somehow hard to explain — it’s intense, but not overwhelming, it’s complex, but not complicated, it reels you in and engages, but it never tires. It is effortless genius, really.

Montgomery made a few more records with Riverside, culminating with the straight-ahead classic, Full House. Riverside put him on the jazz map, but did not make him enough money. Keepnews tried to put things in perspective for Montgomery, “Hey Wes, a year ago you were unknown and broke. Now you’re a star and broke. That’s tremendous progress.” But when Riverside went bankrupt, Montgomery moved to Verve where he recorded Bumpin’ and other albums. Plenty is made of Montgomery’s shift in musical direction which saw him fuse his improvisation with elaborately arranged strings and orchestra. This certainly brought him more popularity, but at the time it also came with the stigma of smooth jazz. Montgomery’s own motivation9 was to make his music more accessible. “I began by finding things I liked to do and jazz musicians would understand (but) other people would stare and look with mouth wide open.” Montgomery was not content with being a musicians’ musician, “It was good music, and I recorded it, but it just went to musicians, no further.” But being a down-to-earth man, Montgomery conceded that the pragmatism of earning a living also played a role in what he did, “Since everybody has to survive, economics forced musicians out of jazz.”

But it is not like Bumpin’ or any other Verve or A&M record, is really different from The Incredible Jazz Guitar, in terms of Montgomery’s playing. The rawness of the Riverside records does stand in contrast with the more stately (and perhaps a bit dull) arrangements of the Verve and A&M ones. But Montgomery is doing nothing different other than showcasing his jazz guitar with the tone and playing style that he developed that goes beyond styles and sub-genres of jazz, and stands out for its musicality. That’s who Montgomery was, a self-taught genius guitarist who could not read sheet music, who developed his unique technique and sound on his own, and then worked hard and took it to a level where the music was about his expression and improvisation, rather than about skill or style or genre. His story is perhaps best captured by NPR’s jazz profile “The Unmistakable Jazz Guitar”10.

Effortless genius — the notion is a bit fanciful, isn’t it? Maybe our fascination with the ease of genius is just a defense against our own fear of failure, and it has been so argued. But then Montgomery worked quite hard and not necessarily to sound effortless. Perhaps that is the wrong explanation. There is no denying the genius nor the effort of Wes Montgomery. Yet it is his humble acceptance of his cultivated skill and his genuine desire to make his music accessible to everyone that disarms us and makes his genius seem effortless.

Feedback: Did you enjoy reading or think it can be improved? Don’t forget to leave your thoughts in the comments section below! If you liked this article, please share it with your friends, and read a few more!

  1. The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, Wes Montgomery, 1960. Band members: Wes Montgomery (electric guitar), Tommy Flanagan (piano), Percy Heath (bass) and Albert Heath (drums).
  1. Bailey Brautigan at Forbes chooses her “Olympic Photo of the Day” during the 2016 Olympics — a picture by Getty photographer Cameron Spencer showing Usain Bolt effortlessly coasting past his competitors while even turning to look at the camera! For me, this just captures the ease and inevitability of the performance of a truly great performer. 

  2. Dominic Lawson at the Independent analyses the idea of the effortless genius. He writes about Roger Federer defeating Andy Murray in the 2012 Wimbledon Championship Men’s Singles Final, and then argues that the idea might have originated as a defense against our own relative inability or laziness. 

  3. Von’s Records (part of Von’s Shops) is the iconic shop in West Lafayette, Indiana which sells books, music, jewellery and other miscellaneous items. I used to frequent Von’s to shop for music when I was at Purdue

  4. Marc Myers, founder of Jazz Wax, interviewed jazz music producer, Orrin Keepnews, in December 2007. During the long and fascinating conversation, Keepnews talks about the history of Riverside Records and how he ended up producing some of the most impactful jazz albums of the 1950s. 

  5. Elizabeth Blair at NPR reports the demise of Orrin Keepnews at 91. She plays a snippet of an interview with Keepnews, where he narrates the story of how he signed Wes Montgomery with Riverside Records. 

  6. Lucas Frost at guitar learning website UberChord writes about the thumb tone of Wes Montgomery. He argues that the finger picking of Wes Montgomery, Mark Knopfler and Jeff Beck is inspiration enough to throw away the guitar pick! 

  7. The Hub at Musician’s Friend interviews guitar wizard Joe Satriani. In a wide-ranging conversation, Satriani relates the story of how he ended up taking lessons from Lennie Tristano, the jazz pianist and music teacher, who became blind at the age of nine or ten. Satriani recalls how he used to admire the tasteful guitar solos of Wes Montgomery, only for his teacher, Tristano, to tell him the same thing about Montgomery! 

  8. In his book 625 Alive: The Wes Montgomery BBC Performance Transcribed, guitarist Tim Fitzgerald interviews the pianist Harold Mabern about his time with Wes Montgomery. Mabern remembers his days with Montgomery with a lot of fondness and recalls Montgomery’s band leadership, his generous pay and the fact that he would be constantly practising on his guitar. 

  9. Josef Woodard writes at the Jazz Times about the musical direction shift of Wes Montgomery’s music from the traditional straight-ahead jazz he recorded with Riverside, to the more popular, softer-sounding music, often with a string section accompaniment, which he recorded with Verve and A&M. Woodard argues that despite the view of jazz critics and musicians at the time, Montgomery’s later work is not a case of selling out, but a genuine evolution of his music and with a bonafide standing of its own. 

  10. Jazz singer Nancy Wilson profiles Wes Montgomery as part of NPR’s Jazz Profiles. Narrated in Wilson’s lush voice and filled with sound bites and interview clips from musicians, jazz producers and jazz writers, this is one of the best stories and a moving tribute to the great Wes Montgomery. 

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