Thumbing through the New Arrivals section in a record store, one of the many pleasures of record collecting is the occasional unexpected surprise among the usual stack of common reissues and second division artists.
I recently stumbled on this intriguing ’80s issue of Wes Montgomery. The cover looked like those “specially priced” Fantasy two-record compilations of previously issued material, which I have found generally disappointing. However, on closer inspection, I discovered it included one whole side of the classic Wes Montgomery Riverside recording Full House, Live at Tsubo’s, in which Wes Meets the Miles Davis Rhythm Section, recorded live in Berkley. Not just one track, but a whole side, and a bonus, alternative takes from the original recording session.
The vinyl-hound music-sniffer nose twitches.
Previously un-issued alternative takes from sessions for Riverside in the golden years 1959-63, before Wes’ migration to “instrumental pop”. Montgomery died in 1968, so there’s no more music where that came from, and vinyl more or less died in the mid ’80s, so… but wait! French press? Carrere Distribution? Radin, cheapskate, everything about this reissue says don’t, but the material looked compelling, two records, priced in single figures, what is there to lose?
Selection: SOS Take 2
Artists – “Full House” session
Wes Montgomery (guitar) Johnny Griffin (tenor) Wynton Kelly (piano) Paul Chambers (bass) Jimmy Cobb (drums) June 25, 1962, recorded live at Tsubo, Berkeley, California, engineer Wally Heider, issued on Riverside 434, 1962, later reissued on a Fantasy two-fer as “Groove Brothers“.
Difficult to find an original Riverside in top condition, friends have resorted to Japan. However we now have another alternative.
Other Montgomery sessions – artists:
Kenny Burrell, James Clay, Victor Feldman, Johnny Griffin, Louis Hayes, Milt Jackson, Philly Joe Jones, Sam Jones, and Mel Rhyne. Riverside titles from which alternative takes are included:
Selections curated by Wes’s original producer, Orin Keepnews, from original Riverside session tapes, released on Fantasy Records “Milestone” label in 1982 (35 year old vinyl, from before the CD watershed!). This edition licensed for European distribution through Carrere, with just a hint of garlic.
I confess to not being a big fan of jazz guitar, aside from Kenny Burrell and early Grant Green, and most recently, a new face, Canadian guitarist in the bop tradition, Peter Leitch. Perhaps it comes from having an aversion to the smooth jazz school of George Benson and Earl Klugh, which I associated Wes with, in retrospect, wrongly at least regarding his early years. We all make mistakes, that is why they put a rubber on the end of pencils. I openly admit a lot of what I thought in the first half of my life turned out to be wrong. Why waste the second half repeating it, just to be “consistent”? Breaking your own rules has been found a rewarding experience. Just sometimes. Other times its a good reminder why you have that rule.
Wes Montgomery is backed by the dream rhythm team of Kelly, Chambers and Cobb. Johnny Griffin, fastest tenor in the west, is a welcome addition to the line up, which combined with Wynton Kelly’s rhythmic attack, lifts it from being just a guitar session to a quintet of greater depth and contrast.
Observations on Wes from the guitar world:
“Wes elevated the guitar from rhythm accompaniment to a front line instrument, and was one of the first jazz guitarist to fully incorporate the legato approach of the horn players, using the right-hand thumb instead of a plectrum. The fat, warm sound he was able to produce with the thumb created a very vocal, soulful ‘voice’. Guitarist Jim Mullen noted that Wes “had a double-jointed thumb, which meant he could play both up- and downstrokes like a pick player”.”
“After a passage of fluid, bluesy, always relaxed single-string licks, Wes would move onto octaves for the next stage, and play them so effortlessly that you would hardly notice the transition. Yet, the line is now doubled and intensity is added to the solo. The last phase of the solo would see Wes move from octaves to full chords – known as ‘block’ chords – which would further increase the drama and excitement.”
Few recordings capture a live set as well as the Full House session, perhaps Miles & Mobley at The Blackhawk, Bill Evans Village Vanguard sessions come to mind. The ambience is luscious, tactile, you have to dim the lights, join the audience, you are there. I guess stereo helps complete the sense of physical presence.
Vinyl: M-47065 Fantasy/ Milestone, French reissue, Carrere Distribution (1982)
Though reissues can be a slippery slope in terms of audio fidelity, there seems to be a principle, that if the original recording is top quality, and the re-issue is re-mastered from a high quality copy tape, and someone didn’t f*** it up, the quality of parentage can come shining through in the reissue. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, they say. That certainly seems to be the case here.
Carrere Records was formed in the ’70s by a french producer Claude Carrere, who created Disques Carrere, a label specialising in Euro rock and pop, but with a significant number of jazz reissues in its book. Carrere was a little like Interdisc in the previous decade, acting as a licensing operation that organised manufacture and distribution in Europe of overseas recordings, mainly from the US. Based on the small number I own, Carrere editions are usually sonically indifferent, possibly a reflection of the rock and pop engineers tasked with re-mastering in the 80’s, and the type of equipment in use . As always, there are exceptions, both good and bad, this was a good one. Carrere Records was bought finally by the giant Warner Group in the ’90s.
1982, Specially Priced Two Record Set, Fantasy Tenth & Parker, Carrere Distribution, French pressing…all the signs say “no”: but that material, those players, and I swear the record winked at me to draw my attention. Not just a compilation, but an intriguing concept, 14 alternative takes.
For some reason the original Riverside edition of Full House is very difficult to find and highly priced when it is. I had been after a copy for some time, ever since a friend played me his Japanese copy. Great session, great sound. Through The Alternative Wes, I was able to A:B this Fantasy reissue against a Japanese copy of the original commercial release. The Japanese sounded very good, but put to the test, the French Fantasy unexpectedly took the lead.
The comparison was doubly surprising because the Japanese Riverside was untypically strong. Several of my Japanese Riversides have turned out sonically very weak, the top end rolled off, and a general lack of punch. Victor Japan generally produced quite decent pressings, so the finger of suspicion points at a string of lacklustre transfer tapes sent to Japan from the US. Why this did not suffer the same fate is anyone’s guess.
The reissue’s pitch is that Wes was deeply self-critical, and that the takes he rejected are still of significant merit. It certainly sounds convincing to me. If anyone has the original commercial release of Full House Live at Tsubos they might like to put that assertion to the test.