You should know about Wes Montgomery. The man was an absolute boss when it came to making music centred around the electric guitar. Every so often you read a review of a show – usually Santana or a Slash one – and the reviewers will talk about how the performer ‘made their instrument sing.’ It’s an overused cliche but it means something when it’s attributed correctly. When you find players who are so highly dedicated to their craft – and their axe – that they literally eschew the need for melody, that’s what the writer means. They literally are the melody. Sometimes I’ve seen it live where the guitarist will sing the exact same notes they’re playing on the strings, like their voicebox is connected to the instrument. Other times, they let it speak for itself. That latter definition certainly applies to the legendary Montgomery, who probably has one of the most beautiful guitar tones I’ve ever heard.
Back when I decided that it would be a really formative and enlightening experience to raid my parents vinyl collection (too much Elvis – Mum, not enough Led Zeppelin – Dad, nobody will admit to having bought all that James Taylor), I was finally able to appreciate that kind of intersensory experience that comes with exploring and listening to an actual record. You really can’t judge a book by it’s cover when you’re looking at the miniscule square on iTunes, but with the gorgeous gatefold artwork of yesteryear, it’s certainly possible. The perrenial ashtray of Montgomery’s ‘A Day In The Life’ was as evocative as the music within, which featured originals and covers led by Montgomery and accompanied by an amazing studio orchestra. And there’s probably nothing more stunning than the title track.
I actually heard Montgomery’s take on this Beatles Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club classic before I heard the original, and that made all the difference. Montgomery was blasted by critics for doing nothing more than playing the melody of popular pop songs on jazz guitar on this record, but that’s entirely unfair. The rearrangement and blues voicing of ‘A Day In The Life’ he presents makes for a completely different sounding, and feeling, song. It’s the quiet winds sweeping away the excesses of the sixties, with enough glimmer and abandon to keep the spirit alive, but an ominous sense for what’s ahead. Meanwhile, the symphony is actually breathtaking to listen to. We get excited when we hear a string section in a rock song nowadays, but this is everything but the kicthen sink – marimbas included. The sky was the limit in music back then, and Montgomery took full advantage of it. Through it all, his guitar really is singing, a completely different tune to that of Lennon and McCartney, but a faithful rendition nonetheless. It’s quite hard to describe unless you listen to it (which hopefully, you will), but the amount of drama he could summon with only a clean sound and a few effects is astounding. Reinvention can sometimes be as fascinating as the invention itself. That was true of Hendrix with Dylan, and I think it applies here, too. Essential listening.
Wes Montgomery – ‘A Day In The Life’