Smokin' At The Half Note

Wynton Kelly Trio / Wes Montgomery

Verve, 1965

REVIEW BY: Jason Warburg


Smokin’ is right.

This album, capturing one of the most influential jazz guitarists—hell, guitarists, period—of the 20th century, has won wide and lasting acclaim for all the right reasons. Originating (and opening with) tunes taken from a club date at New York City’s Half Note jazz club, it captures the year-long 1965 live-and-studio collaboration between still-rising star Wes Montgomery on guitar and the superb Wynton Kelly Trio, featuring Kelly on piano, Paul Chambers on bass and the inimitable Jimmy Cobb on drums, all of whom were part of Miles Davis’s band through his seminal 1959-63 period.

To “smokin’” add “unconscious,” as in the telepathic interplay and harmonic congruence between Montgomery and Kelly, whose every run up and down the frets and keys is imbued with remarkable fluidity and elegance. Montgomery rules the first half of opening track “No Blues” (a Miles Davis composition), working his way into a quiet fury that climaxes in an extended looping, soaring sequence in minute six, whereupon Kelly answers back with an exuberant solo of equal grace and athleticism. In the ninth minute, Montgomery returns to spar a bit more as he and Kelly egg each other on into the final quarter of this expansive, stellar 12-minute showcase of melodic interplay.my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250

The eight-and-a-half-minute “If You Could See Me Now” relies less on speed and more on that fluid elegance as Kelly and Montgomery trade sublime solos and phrases. This one features Kelly at least as much as Montgomery, though Wes works in a gorgeous, lilting solo that stretches across minutes four, five and six.

Side Two of the original LP (tracks 3-5) consists of tunes played at the Half Note that the group went back and re-recorded in the studio three months later. “Unit 7” is lit up by Montgomery’s skittering, impossibly nimble runs over a more active and athletic rhythm section. Answering Kelly’s opening volley, Montgomery’s solo from 2:30 through 5:40 is genuinely epic, a rippling, juking, endlessly inventive thing of beauty.

Montgomery’s own composition “Four On Six” is unsurprisingly another star turn for Wes, featuring one effortless, molten, dexterous run after another, until in the fourth minute, Kelly answers back. In minutes six and seven, the baton returns to Montgomery as Kelly plays a repeating, hypnotic pattern underneath. Original album-closer “What’s New” smolders along at first, with Kelly at his most dead-of-night lyrical as Cobb lays on the brushes and Chambers and Montgomery exercise restraint on this mostly piano-driven number.

(NOTE: The 2005 Verve Master Edition CD release adds six bonus tracks to the original LP’s five-track, 41-minute run time, four of which were later released as the Grammy-nominated LP Willow Weep For Me with overdubbed with strings and brass. Here they are heard in their original live form with no overdubs. Stop and think about that for a minute: the “leftovers” from this show, relegated to bonus tracks on the Master Edition, were nominated for a Grammy.)

In addition to being a milestone of jazz guitar, Smokin’ At The Half Note is a superb example of nightclub jazz at its finest—sophisticated and graceful but also smoking hot. And indeed, there is something downright sensual about the way Montgomery coaxes notes from his guitar, working his way up from gentle caresses to an ecstatic frenzy. If you only own half a dozen classic jazz albums, this landmark collaboration between Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio should be one of them.

Rating: A

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