I’ve been here before, many times. So Much Guitar! was part of my guitar curriculum in college, so I studied it profusely, clumsily breaking down each note to make an attempt at reassembly though my inexperienced fingers, but never capturing the feel or spirit I heard. I was just connecting the dots, regretfully missing out on what I’m experiencing now. Until this point, I never had an opportunity to fully appreciate this album as a carefully crafted work of art. Osmosis through repetitive casual listens doesn’t really apply to jazz, and the only way to absorb this level of mastery is to dedicate your time and attention to the album—which is exactly what So Much Guitar!, deserves. Such is also true for Wes Montgomery’s entire career.
Historically, the significance of this recording in the Montgomery timeline is substantial. The combination of Ron Carter, Ray Barretto, Hank Jones, and Lex Humphries proved to be an ideal canvas for Montgomery’s paintings. The light Latin feel brought to the project via Barretto’s superb conga work would be revisited time and again as part of a future formula at the end of his catalog that’s equally loved and despised. Here’s that equatorial flavor presented with Montgomery at full tilt, long before the Creed Taylor / Verve / A&M ‘octave’ years. The interaction between Carter’s bass and Humphries’ drums is mastery at its most playful, perfectly pocketed underneath Montgomery and Jones. The addition of Barretto is just bonus, giving So Much Guitar! as a whole as well as the recorded career of Wes Montgomery to that point something it desperately needed. Spice.
For some reason, the powers that be decided to add another entire album to the track lineup on So Much Guitar!. Originally issued as The Montgomery Brothers in Canada, tracks nine through sixteen on this latest issue changes the instrumentation, and the mood felt on the first half of the disc. That spice I referred to on the set with Barretto is missed when Canada starts, though the Montgomery Brothers LP inclusion here is welcomed. Both albums deserve to stand alone, but I must admit it’s a hell of a bonus. Wes Montgomery bogo ... I can dig it.
There’s so many things that go into the careful construction of a good jazz album. A lot of music buffs, including myself, consider the output from jazz artists of the ‘50s and ‘60s to be the finest in the era of album invention. The technology in recording equipment had hit its first pinnacle by 1953, bringing you into the room with the artist(s) to experience the melding of tones, the vibrating of reeds, the breaths during the rests. The long-player format allowed for more improvisation and a quieter platform in reproduction, bringing nuance and dynamics into the recordings. All of this gave ample room for the artists to shine brightly, or fall flat on their face if they weren’t at the top of their game. So, equipment advancements and good engineering skills set the bar high for all that dared to step foot into a studio ... which leads to the final and most important ingredient: Inspirational performances. Tape don’t lie. Neither does a good recording engineer.
By the time 1961 rolled around, the majority of players in the jazz recording industry (and I include label owners, engineers, and general muses alike in this lumping) had reached this apex of control and finesse in the studio, and cruised right along for years until it was time to deconstruct or destruct, whichever came first. Luckily for us, Wes Montgomery’s mastery only had the chance to mellowly deconstruct a bit before his untimely death in ‘68. A little de-invention, maybe, but no destruction. Even if the subtle octaving melodies of Montgomery’s latter catalog leave you unimpressed, admitting to his masterful delivery no matter the setting is a smart allegiance. Yes, his earlier workouts are far superior to the Creed Taylor years, and So Much Guitar! is Montgomery at his most comfortably virile ... one of the finest recordings you’ll ever put in your player.