New Live Album Spotlights Two Long-Lost Jazz Greats

Wes Montgomery and Wynton Kelly in the studios of WGBH Boston, 1966.
Wes Montgomery and Wynton Kelly in the studios of WGBH Boston, 1966. Photo copyright by Lee Tanner/Courtesy of Michael Bloom Media Relations
Though jazzmen Wes Montgomery and Wynton Kelly both died relatively young, at the ages of 45 (heart attack) and 39 (epileptic seizure), respectively, the impact they made on the genre belies the amount of time they spent performing and recording.

Montgomery is routinely at or near the top of any “Greatest Jazz Guitarists Ever” list, and he even enjoyed great pop/R&B crossover commercial success toward the end of his life. Pianist Kelly was a well-regarded — and, fans say, underappreciated — sideman with Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie and John Coltrane, then a trio leader who added influences of blues and his Jamaican heritage into his playing.

But when the pair got together onstage, they brought out something extra special in each other. First was 1962’s live offering Full House, which also included Paul Chambers on bass, Jimmy Cobb on drums and Johnny Griffin on sax; guitarist Pat Metheny later singled out the album as “the absolute greatest jazz guitar album ever made.” Then came 1965’s Smokin’ at the Half Note, recorded sans Griffin as the Wynton Kelly Trio.

Resonance Records CD cover
Now comes the new, never-before-released Smokin’ in Seattle: Live at the Penthouse (Resonance). The record captures half-hour portions of two Montgomery/WK Trio live sets (with Ron McClure replacing Chambers) recorded for radio broadcasts over two consecutive weekends in April 1966 and recently uncovered. The package also includes a thick booklet with liner notes, photos, interviews and essays.

“They had a really great chemistry together. Wynton could play with anybody, and I'm sure people feel the same way about Wes, but it's just clear that any time they're onstage together, something special happens,” producer Zev Feldman says via email. “It's quite significant that this is the first new recording to be issued by this duo since the 1960s. There's a distinct flavor and chemistry between the two of them that's undeniable, and the energy on this recording is right up there with the others.”

Of the ten tracks from the two half-hour broadcasts, four feature the Trio and six Montgomery. The material runs the gamut from originals (“Jingles,” “West Coast Blues”) to jazz/pop standards (“What’s New?” “There is No Greater Love,” “If You Could See Me Now”) and jazz icon covers (Sonny Rollins’ “Oleo,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “O Morro Não Tem Vez”).

Feldman and Resonance owner George Klabin obtained the tapes from the original recording engineer, Jim Wilke. “They were in great condition and needed very minimal sound restoration,” Feldman offers. “We come across things all the time that sound impressive on paper but unfortunately the quality of the recording [is] poor. We only release projects that meet high standards of performance and recording quality.”

And while Feldman admits that some of the material here repeats what is on Smokin’ at the Half Note, he feels strongly that this record can stand on its own. One especially interesting thing to note is that this is the only known recording featuring bassist Ron McClure with the Trio, who after this recording went on to join Keith Jarrett's quartet, with Wes Montgomery.

“It’s another recorded document that demonstrates their genius and uncanny ability to play music as a pair,” Feldman sums up. “As with all of our historical discoveries really, this album serves as a great reminder of just how special both of these artists are on their own and as they played together.”
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Bob Ruggiero has been writing about music, books, visual arts and entertainment for the Houston Press since 1997, with an emphasis on classic rock. He used to have an incredible and luxurious mullet in college as well. He is the author of the band biography Slippin’ Out of Darkness: The Story of WAR.
Contact: Bob Ruggiero