[23 May 2012]
PopMatters Associate Events Editor
Other than a crackling record on a turntable, there is perhaps nothing more satisfying to a jazz aficionado than the release of never-before-heard material from a great player. For that reason, Echoes of Indiana Avenue may be one of the most satisfying jazz releases in decades. Recorded in different venues – two live sessions and one studio – the disc comprises nine tracks recorded by Wes Montgomery between 1957 and 1958, performances that came before his official 1959 debut on Riverside Records, The Wes Montgomery Trio: A Dynamic New Sound. The fact that it is surfacing more than half a decade after the performances took place is perhaps even overshadowed by the fact that it’s also the first showcase of previously unheard Montgomery material in more than 25 years.
At the time the recordings were made, Montgomery was practically unheard of – despite touring with Lionel Hampton a decade earlier, he still played only small clubs in his hometown of Indianapolis. For that entire decade, he played those smalls clubs and recorded rarely, only to be discovered by Cannonball Adderley just after the time of these recordings. His first albums would become more experimental as they went on, but those tunes on Echoes are as straightforward as straightforward jazz guitar gets: His tone is crisp, and his notes are clear.
The disc starts off with “Diablo’s Dance”, a Shorty Rogers tune first released in 1953, which kicks it off swinging – a hopping piano and running guitar chords. Following are two Thelonious Monk tunes, “’Round Midnight” and “Straight, No Chaser”. The difference not only in rhythm but overall demeanor of these tunes proves almost immediately how versatile Montgomery would continue to be in his career. Montgomery takes “’Round Midnight” and calms it down, accenting the more natural notes as opposed to trying to imitate the inimitable Monk, but on “Straight, No Chaser”, Montgomery’s thumb-only picking style actually does the trick of following in the Monkish tradition.
A live recording of Billy Strayhorn’s “Take the ‘A’ Train” highlights the middle of the record, led by Earl Van Ripper on piano and Mingo Jones’ walking bass. With its lo-fi audio and background bar noises, the track is still as clean as you can imagine—perhaps a little hot on the high notes but that’s just being nitpicky. The disc-ending improvisation “After Hours Blues” is full of laughter and musical ribaldry in the back-and-forth solos of Montgomery and Ripper. A slow and steady, barely changing bassline by Jones keeps the tune steady, and you can imagine the smiles on the faces of the players as they toy with their talents onstage. Montgomery hits some blues scales and even just listening, it’s clear this was a special moment for the yet-undiscovered player.
Those tunes, along with the jazz standards “Body and Soul” and “Darn That Dream”, help make this new release an instant classic. They showcase a talent before his glory days, paying homage to the standards and classics that inspired him, as he also works on creating his own. Accompanied by great players throughout the disc, including his two brothers Monk (bass) and Buddy (piano) on “Straight, No Chaser”, the whole record flows like it actually was released in the ‘50s, even though it was scraped together after nearly being lost half a century later. It goes to show you that some of the best music you’ll ever hear has never been heard before.