It’s ironic, as surely many have noted before me, that Wes Montgomery’s landmark “live” record Smokin’ at the Half Note wasn’t exactly what its title claimed it to be. Montgomery, along with the Wynton Kelly Trio (Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums), spent the end of June 1965 recording at least eight songs for the LP live at the legendary New York City club. Only two of those songs—“No Blues” and “If You Could See Me Now”—would actually surface on Smokin’ at the Half Note; producer Creed Taylor was unhappy with the remaining tracks and had the group record the rest of the album—“Unit 7”, “Four on Six”, and “What’s New?”—at New Jersey’s Van Gelder Recording Studio a few months later. Although Smokin’ at the Half Note was promoted and culturally absorbed as a live record, in reality only two of its five songs were actually culled from live club sessions.
After Montgomery succumbed to a heart attack in 1968, Verve Records posthumously issued Willow Weep for Me, a beastly fusion of the unreleased tracks from the Half Note sessions with an overdubbed orchestra. The original tracks, now augmented with brass and woodwinds, were transformed into the kind of commercially accessible Playboy-and-pipe pop-jazz that characterized the final years of Montgomery’s output. (I will confess to an unabashed fondness for his schmaltzy renditions of “Eleanor Rigby” and “A Day in the Life”, available on A Day in the Life.) Over the years, those final six recordings from the Smokin’ at the Half Note sessions—“Willow Weep for Me”, “Portrait of Jenny”, “Surrey With the Fringe on Top”, “Oh, You Crazy Moon”, “Misty”, and “Impressions”—would be released, sans overdubs, on various Verve compilations and imports.
The new reissue of Smokin’ at the Half Note collects the entire original album, along with those additional live tracks that Taylor deemed unworthy for inclusion (stripped of all the overdubs, of course). This edition now supersedes all others; although most of the additional material here isn’t of the caliber of the first five tracks (exception: Taylor made a bad call omitting the sizzling run through Coltrane’s “Impressions”, though), it’s logical for all Montgomery fans, when faced with a choice, to select the reissue as the ultimate source. If there’s one glaring problem with the additional live tracks, it’s the ubiquity of host Alan Grant, who introduces the songs with corny hipster speak (“He’s gonna play pretty for you…”). With the exception of “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” (in which he interrupts the band mid-song for some closing remarks), Grant is relatively unobtrusive, if not occasionally grating.
Along with 1960’s The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery, Smokin’ at the Half Note is widely regarded as the jazz guitar record to which all other jazz guitar records bow (Pat Metheny dubbed it “the absolute greatest jazz guitar album ever made”). It still confidently retains that distinction today, largely due to Montgomery’s fresh and vibrant performance. Through his trademark use of octaves, Montgomery tumbles head-over-heels up and down the guitar neck; his exultant phrasing is at once analytical and restless. His playing is punch-drunk and giddy (“No Blues”), clear-headed and reflective (“Misty”), and downright domineering (“Unit 7”, “Four on Six”), his tone and attack often recalling piano and trumpet more than guitar. The contributions of Kelly, Chambers, and Cobb shouldn’t go without mentioning; fresh off a spell supporting Miles Davis (documented on the superb In Person: Friday Night at the Blackhawk), the trio is nothing short of subtly iconic.
As Jim Fisch’s liner notes state, Smokin’ at the Half Note finds Montgomery’s career at “a crossroads”, his guitar skirting between the more hard-boiled impressions of his past and the wine-colored pop flirtations of his future. If the added tracks aren’t necessarily revelatory, they at least flesh out an accurate picture of the record’s conception, reinforcing its prominent stature in the racks of any jazz collection.