Wes Montgomery: Smokin' at the Half Note [Reissue]

Zeth Lundy

Reissue of the landmark jazz guitar album is appended with six additional tracks from the original live sessions.

Wes Montgomery

Smokin' at the Half Note [Reissue]

Label: Verve
US Release Date: 2005-02-15
UK Release Date: 2005-03-21
Amazon affiliate

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.


From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.