By the time Wes Montgomery died of a heart attack in 1968, aged 45, he was most famous for a series of albums, supervised by the producer Creed Taylor, in which he used his jazz chops to turn pop hits — “Goin’ Out of My Head”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “California Dreaming”, “A Day in the Life” — into a form of high-quality, lightly funky easy-listening music. In his earlier years, however, he had raised the bar for jazz guitar — and that Wes Montgomery was the one who visited Europe three years before his death. His touring itinerary included a season at Ronnie Scott’s, where he met some of the musicians who would accompany him to Germany for a TV broadcast commissioned by Norddeutsche Rundfunk, the Hamburg-based station that was, and is, part of the ARD national public broadcasting network.
Playing in NDR’s studios in front of an audience, Montgomery led an eight -piece line-up including one fellow American, the tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin. The six European musicians were the Austrian altoist Hans Koller, the French-Algerian pianist Martial Solal, the French bassist Michel Gaudry, and three Brits: Ronnie Scott on tenor, Ronnie Ross on baritone and Ronnie Stephenson on drums.
The music they played on April 30, 1965 in NDR’s Jazz Workshop series has just been released for the first time, and it’s a fine example of multinational mainstream-modern jazz. The four-piece reed section breezes through the solid, tightly-voiced arrangements of Montgomery’s “West Coast Blues”, “Four on Six” and “Twisted Blues”, Ross’s “Last of the Wine” and “Blue Grass”, Griffin’s “The Leopard Walks” and Solal’s fascinating “Opening 2”. There are special features for Wes on a quartet bossa nova version of “Here’s that Rainy Day”, and an electrifying Griffin on “Blue Monk”. It’s a very satisfying hour, and a welcome discovery.
But there’s also a second disc, a Blu-Ray video recording of the rehearsal in the studio two days earlier, in which the musicians are getting comfortable with the charts while the TV director works out his camera shots. And it contains five minutes that are absolutely remarkable.
Between the rehearsals of “Blue Grass” and “Blue Monk”, Solal runs through an intricate trio arrangement of “On Green Dolphin Street” with Gaudry and Stephenson. As they begin, the other musicians slowly gather round, listening intently. Scott peers over Stephenson’s shoulder, following the chart on the drummer’s music stand. Montgomery stays his chair, cradling his fat-bodied Gibson guitar, but is paying serious attention. So is Griffin, who prowls round to stand behind the pianist.
It’s a breathtaking performance. Typically of Solal, it mixes angular modernity with perfectly integrated hints of the history of jazz piano, from stride to bebop. It’s audacious and witty and wonderful, and the bassist and drummer do brilliantly to keep pace. By the time it’s over, you’re thinking that Solal is the inheritor to Art Tatum’s breathtaking virtuosity. And the other musicians are thinking something similar. You can see it in their body language. And you can hear it when, as the last note dies, Griffin walks round beside Solal, leans into him and says: “Ridiculous!” And as he walks away and he and Scott cross paths, you can see them shaking their heads in admiration. It’s a beautiful thing to see musicians reacting spontaneously in an informal setting. More than half a century later, we can share their sense of delight and discovery.
All these men — in their stylish polo shirts and cardigans and narrow slacks and neat haircuts, with their mastery of a complex musical language — are now gone, except one. That one is Martial Solal, who played with Sidney Bechet and Django Reinhardt and wrote the music for Godard’s À bout de souffle, now 93 years old and, as he has continued to prove through the years, an authentic genius of jazz.
* Wes Montgomery’s The NDR Hamburg Studio Recordings, produced by Stefan Gerdes, Axel Dürr and Joachim Becker, is on the Jazzline Classics/NDR Kultur label.