The late jazz guitarist Wes Montgomery had an odd, distinct way of playing the guitar. Eschewing the standard plectrum, he strummed chords and picked single notes and trademark octaves with only his thumb. The other four fingers of his right hand rested on his Gibson L5 guitar while the thumb did all the work. It may seem like a gimmick that looked impressive but compromised his playing, but that couldn’t be further from the truth, as the fleshy part of Montgomery’s thumb unleashed some of the most gorgeous, sublime guitar playing of his time, influencing countless jazz guitarists in ensuing decades. The overachieving reissue label Craft Recordings – who’ve been on fire lately with vinyl and CD reissues of classic albums from Bill Evans and R.E.M. – have recognized Montgomery’s ample talents and wide-ranging influence with a new expanded reissue of the 1962 album Full House, dubbed The Complete Full House Recordings.
This reissue expands upon the original album, recorded at Tsubo, a long-since shuttered coffeehouse in Berkeley, California, on 25 June 1962. The six original tracks now include eight additional ones in three LPs or two CDs. Over the years, Full House has seen a variety of reissues. The 1987 CD release contained two alternate tracks and a previously unreleased take of Mel Tormé’s “Born to Be Blue”, while the remastered 2007 release had the original six tracks complemented by five bonus tracks, including alternate takes of “Cariba” and “Born to Be Blue”. The new Craft Recordings version is the best of the bunch, with the original six tracks, all the alternate takes from the 2007 version, and three previously unreleased takes from that historic night at Tsubo.
Backing Montgomery on this now-seminal gig are Miles Davis alums Wynton Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass, and Jimmy Cobb on drums. Johnny Griffin on saxophone, rounds out the ensemble, winding through various standards and Montgomery originals. Kicking off the set is Montgomery’s title track, a nimble waltz number with Latin accents, and Montgomery and Griffin playing identical notes when not flying off into the stratosphere with jaw-dropping, sublime soloing. This bright, jubilant performance slides easily into the gentle balladry of the Lerner and Loewe classic, “I’ve Grown Accustomed to Her Face” (from My Fair Lady). Beginning with solo guitar, Montgomery’s tone is deep and warm and soon accompanied subtly by Chambers and Cobb.
Zig-zagging between different styles and moods, Montgomery and his band are back to a more frenetic pace with Dizzy Gillespie and Frank Paparelli’s lightning-fast “Blue’n’Boogie”. The musicians are locked in place as a fully charged, cohesive unit highlighted by some of Kelly’s best playing and typically expert thumb-picking from Montgomery.
The band keep the quick pace alive with the fast, exotic “Cariba”. Piano, saxophone, and guitar solos are traded off in succession, and Montgomery’s playing slowly builds in intensity, with single notes soon turning into his trademark octaves. Johnny Mercer and Harold Arlen’s “Come Rain or Come Shine” maintains a bright, jazzy tempo while the pace picks up again on the smooth, caffeinated Montgomery original, “S.O.S.” This ends the album proper, and by any artistic standard, that’s more than enough. But the reissue is chock full of great additional moments spread out over the remaining tracks, many previously unreleased until now.
The title track’s original LP version is a composite of two takes. The “new” version of “Full House”, presented here, is the complete unedited master take, with Montgomery’s originally played – and previously replaced – guitar solo restored. A slower, more relaxed take of “Blue’n’Boogie” is also included here, as are two additional takes each of “S.O.S.” and “Born to Be Blue”, previously available on Wes Montgomery: The Complete Riverside Recordings and The Alternative Wes Montgomery. As a result, The Complete Full House Recordings isn’t necessarily an enormous treasure trove of unreleased material – it simply places all the relevant recordings in one convenient place and throws in a few never-before-heard tracks as well.
Craft Recordings, as usual, has done exemplary work here. The sound quality is warm and crisp, the packaging sumptuous and sophisticated, and the new, expanded liner notes by noted jazz writer and historian Bill Milkowski are reverent and informative. Wes Montgomery died too soon, at 45, of a heart attack in 1968, but his influence is felt far and wide, and a wealth of his highly skillful playing is available for the rest of us to enjoy decades later.