While it is a truism worth remembering that the early work of a great artist is unlikely to equal the work of his maturity, it is also true that any work produced by a genius demands attention. At the very least it gives an insight into the artist’s development; at its best, it reveals an artist whose talent is shown through from their earliest days. The discovery of previously unreleased material from such an artist is never without interest.
When Resonance Recordings comes out with a deluxe two-disc set of early tracks from one of the most influential jazz guitarists of the last century, Wes Montgomery, attention must be paid. The album, In the Beginning, contains 26 tracks from the years 1949 through 1958. It includes club dates, recording sessions, and jams from the Montgomery-Johnson Quintette which featured the three Montgomery brothers, pianist Buddy, bassist Monk, Montgomery, tenor sax man Alonzo “Pookie” Johnson, and drummer Sonny Johnson. It also includes a set of five Quintette tracks produced by a young Quincy Jones for Epic Records in 1955, only one of which, “Love for Sale” was ever released, and an assortment of other pieces.
Disc one has 14 Montgomery-Johnson tracks recorded in 1956 at the Turf Club in Indianapolis. They run through some driving takes of tunes like “After You’ve Gone,” “Four,” and “My Heart Stood Still.” There is an enticing take on the John Lewis composition, “Django,” and a blues jam featuring a Debbie Andrews vocal. This may be a young Montgomery, but it is fine Montgomery already showing his chops. The disc closes with a private recording of a jam which has Montgomery playing bass on “Ralph’s New Blues.” There are two vocal tracks from Andrews: “Going Down to Big Mary’s” and the standard “I Should Care.”
The second disc begins with quartet versions of “Soft Winds,” “Robbin’s Nest,” and “A Night in Tunisia” recorded in 1958 at the Missile Lounge in Indianapolis in 1958. It has Montgomery working with a variety of other musicians on individual tracks: Melvin Rhyne and Richard Crabtree on piano, Flip Stewart and brother Monk on bass, and Paul Parker on drums. The Jones-produced tunes include three Montgomery originals: “Leila,” “Blues,” and “Far Wes.” The disc ends with a set of three pieces recorded for Spire Records in 1949: “King Trotter,” “Carlena’s Blues,” and “Smooth Evening,” with vocals on the last two from Sonny Parker.
The set comes with a 55-page booklet complete with some vintage photographs and notes from producer Zev Feldman and authors Ashley Kahn and Bill Milkowski. There are excerpts from an unpublished book from Buddy Montgomery as told to Joseph Woodard, conversations with others, and an appreciation from Pete Townshend.
The recording on some of the tracks leaves something to be desired, but the music gives a real taste of the great things to come. In the Beginning is not the mature Wes Montgomery at the top of his game, but early Montgomery is nothing to sneer at.
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