Listening to Wes Montgomery is like experiencing the first warm rain in spring. The drops may refresh, but there’s something melancholy about it. The end of winter is still an end, even if the wonder of the seasonal change deserves welcome. Montgomery’s notes pour down from his guitar in showers. They are more of a stream than a torrent. The appropriately titled standard, Jimmy Van Heusen’s “Here’s That Rainy Day” from the newly issued
Live in Paris double CD originally recorded at the Champs-Elysees back on March 27, 1965, provides an excellent example of Montgomery’s fluid style. He’s ably backed by a trio of top-notch players: Harold Mabern (piano), Arthur Harper (bass) and Jimmy Lovelace (drums), but they take far too many long solos. The guitar is where the action is.
Montgomery takes turns using different syncopations, riffs and picking styles to keep the song moving forward. He’s not just playing with technical finesse. He’s creating a mood. Despite the general upbeat tempo, Montgomery’s not putting a happy musical face. This is more serious, in a reflective way. This music would go well with a bottle of red wine and a cigarette, but if you were with a partner, this would be your break up song.
Who knows what Montgomery thought when he played guitar, but the general atmospherics of this gig suggests an attentive crowd. There is a silence, a reverence of a sort when the band gets in a groove that illustrates the audience’s involvement on a psychological level. Sure, they applaud at the right moments, but they and the band also provide a space where jazz is reason enough. It doesn’t require context. Art for art’s sake — the Paris of one’s imagination made real for a night.
Tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin joins in on several cuts, including the ten-minute-plus “Full House” and Thelonious Monk’s classic, “‘Round Midnight”. On the latter, Montgomery explores the beauty of the melody and shows how sophisticated the music is in its very simplicity. He keeps the music on the down low, not getting too fast or wound up. When Griffin joins in, the very tone of his sax adds commentary to what Montgomery just played. The horn adds an agitation to the mix. He’s animated in contrast to Montgomery’s calm. That creates tension, and at first, one thinks Griffin’s going to turn the song into an occasion to party. But the guitarist comes back and takes control for the last four minutes. He captures Griffin’s excitement, but he mutes it as a way of keeping the flame burning or at least smoldering. The song ends with a minute of just Wes solo on the strings in a meditative groove.
The concert ends with three blues numbers, a medley of “Blue ‘N’ Boogie” / “West Coast Blues” and “Twisted Blues”. Ironically, these are the happiest songs. Montgomery plays them with a lighter touch, perhaps because he wanted to end the show on a less heavy level. He strums more than picks here and keeps the pace moving to a fast beat. He accents his cadences with fancy frilly as he glides up and down the strings on the final cut. As far as one can tell, it’s not raining outside. But Montgomery’s playing has fallen on their ears. The promise of April in the City of Lights awaits.