Revisiting Wes Montgomery’s Early Gems


“The Golden Thumb.”

That was the nickname of the superb guitarist Wes Montgomery, who died in 1968 at the age of 45. The moniker referred both to the fact that the Indianapolis native used his thumb, instead of a pick, to pluck his instrument’s strings, and to his resplendent, broad sound, which could be as refreshing and pleasing as a warm, sunny day in winter.

Montgomery was the most influential jazz guitarist of his time, leaving a mark on such fellow plectrists as Jim Hall, George Benson, Pat Martino and Kevin Eubanks. In the last years of his life, he recorded mostly pop tunes with orchestral backgrounds for Verve and A&M; Records. These albums were extremely successful--he won two Grammys, and “A Day in the Life” was the No. 1-selling jazz album of 1967.

However, from 1959, when he made his recording debut, to 1963, the guitarist concentrated on small-group performances. “Wes Montgomery: The Complete Riverside Recordings,” a recently released 12-CD package, documents these early years.

Time has done little to diminish the elegant charm that Montgomery offered in his ardently swinging improvisations. On a ballad such as “Born to be Blue,” he could be relaxed and luxuriant. For a blues, he was straightforward and melodic, never opting for funk cliches, while on the up tempos he displayed a rippling muscularity: Picture Robert De Niro’s torso in “Taxi Driver.”

This collection assembles the 160 tracks that Montgomery made for Riverside, and includes 15 previously unissued performances, six re-edited versions of previously issued numbers and 29 alternate takes.


At $175, the set is definitely pricey. Still, this collection--produced by Orrin Keepnews, who was, save one session, the original producer of these dates--is a must-have for the jazz guitar enthusiast. Fortunately, most of this material, as well as the A&M; and Verve sessions, is available on single CD reissues that are more affordable.

Monk on the Air: “Thelonious Monk: Inner Views,” a musical documentary about the revered pianist-composer, which features interviews with Keepnews and Sonny Rollins, can be heard Wednesday, 9 to 10 p.m., on KCRW-FM (89.9).

Around Town: Guitarist Ciro Hurtado, whose presentations deliver a blend of music from Latin American climes and jazz and who appears Sunday at the Largo, is another artist who finds definite advantages in being called a “World Beat” performer.

“It’s a convenient title. Now I fit into something when before I didn’t. I wasn’t folk, I wasn’t fusion, I wasn’t jazz,” said the Peruvian artist, who has lived in Los Angeles since 1975.

Hurtado, whose new album is “Tales From Home” on ROM Records, points out that though much of his music has a Peruvian influence, don’t expect to hear something soothing and melancholy like “El Condor Pasa” from him: “We have a great Afro-Peruvian culture in my country. There’s a lot of rhythm in my music.”

Critic’s Choice: Bill Holman, who arguably leads the top jazz orchestra extant, will bring in some new stuff for his performance Saturday at the Jazz Bakery. Though Dan Quayle is gone, Holman hasn’t forgotten him, and will offer “I Do/You’re Through.”