Smokin’ in Seattle
Record Store Day seems to have made a natural partnership with the vinyl revival, and one excellent way of marking tomorrow’s 10th anniversary of a very worthwhile institution would be to invest in the specially timed 12-inch 33 1/3rd rpm release of Smokin’ in Seattle, 50-odd minutes of newly discovered 1966 club recordings by the trio of the pianist Wynton Kelly, with Ron McClure on bass and Jimmy Cobb on drums, plus their special guest, the nonpareil guitarist Wes Montgomery.
This line-up, with Paul Chambers on bass instead of McClure, was responsible for the classic Smokin’ at the Half Note, recorded in New York the previous year. The excerpts from two nights of music at the Penthouse in Seattle which make up the new release were broadcast live by a local radio station, limited by a dictate of the musicians’ union to the first 30 minutes per night. This means that each of the two sides begins with two tracks by the trio before the guitarist makes his appearance, and that the final track on each side is faded out, as it had to be on the original transmission.
These are no drawbacks. As the years go by more and more people are drawn to the special quality of Kelly’s playing, something that to me has always been summed up by one word. In one of several interesting interviews and essays contained in the large-format insert, the pianist Kenny Barron uses it over and over again: “The joy. Joy. That’s the word. He had such joy when he played. His playing was so joyful and infectious.”
It’s something that first impressed me when I heard Miles Davis in Person: Friday Night at the Blackhawk, recorded in San Francisco in 1961, when Kelly was still a member of Miles’s quintet. The joy in full bloom in these recordings, particularly on the sparkling trio versions of the standard “There Is No Greater Love” and a funky blues by Blue Mitchell, “Sir John”. Kelly’s gloriously romantic ballad playing is perfectly displayed in a reading of Tadd Dameron’s “If You Could See Me Now”.
The pianist — who died of an epileptic seizure in 1971, aged 39 — is assisted by some beautiful (and beautifully recorded) playing from his bassist and drummer. McClure talks in the notes about how, aged 23 when he was first called to deputise for Chambers in the trio, this was a career-defining gig for him, and also typical of a period in jazz that has now almost passed: “In those days I played with all sorts of groups where there was no music, no conversation, you just started to play.”
Partly that’s because there was a core repertoire. When Montgomery makes his appearance, he storms through several familiar items, including the originals “Jingles” and “West Coast Blues” and the standard “What’s New”. On an untitled blues in F he gets as soulful as Grant Green, and his rapid chordal playing on “O Morro Não Tem Vez” is the sort of thing that set new standards for jazz guitarists in the ’60s.
Pat Metheny remains one of his most ardent admirers. “I always feel like I am enriched in ways that transcend music when I hear Wes,” Metheny says in the notes. “There was something special about who he was as a person contained in each note he played.” The same was true of Kelly, and the benign spirits of both men are very evident throughout this marvellously vivid document.
* Smokin’ in Seattle is released by Resonance Records. The vinyl edition is out on April 22, the CD version on May 19.