Sunday, September 18, 2016

Guitarists come from near and far to celebrate Wes Montgomery at Indy Jazz Fest

At one of several panel discussions distributed over the course of a long day of music Saturday at IUPUI,
Wes Montgomery, the most important jazz guitarist since Charlie Christian, is the 2016 Indy Jazz Fest focus.
moderator Kyle Long asked the three musician panelists to identify what they found most distinctive about Wes Montgomery, the innovative jazz guitarist who called Indianapolis home throughout his brief life.

The Indy Jazz Fest's busiest day got  under way in a room renamed "The Hub Bub" after an old Indianapolis bar where local jazz history was made. The answers Long received covered several notable aspects of Montgomery's artistry that are still revered nearly 50 years after his death here while in his middle 40s.

Bill Lancton praised Montgomery's legacy of relaxed soulfulness. Another fellow guitarist long active here, Steven Weakley, said: "Wes knew how to tell a story." Pianist-bandleader Monika Herzig shared her belief that "the tunes he wrote are so groovy and strong."

All of those merits could be found somewhere in performances that day in the IUPUI Campus Center.
The influence of Montgomery (1923-68) is freely acknowledged across the fraternity of American jazz guitarists, even those whose personal contributions have been distinctive for years.

Perhaps the three traits cited by the Hub Bub panel were best illustrated by a spirited trek through the Wes classic "Road Song," three or four versions of which I heard Saturday. The one that stands out in my mind was played by a band with a four-guitar front line consisting of Russell Malone, Henry Johnson, Dave Stryker, and Fareed Haque. The exemplary rhythm section consisted of Rick Germanson, piano; Luke Sellick, bass, and Willie Jones III, drums.

The theme was stated with forthright elan, and the succession of solos had that special storytelling quality.  The groovy heart of Montgomery's best compositions is of course a natural feature of "Road Song."  And these four guitarists — the rhythm section concurring — sported both the relaxation and the soulfulness that Lancton (himself capable of both qualities) cited in the panel discussion.

The most exciting moments came when the guitarists "traded fours" a couple of times through the song.  The transitions were smooth and spontaneously linked to what had come before, while heightening the exuberant feeling. The whole exhibition seemed to confirm the camaraderie often observed among guitarists and their buoyant emotional investment in connecting with audiences.

Other highlights from Saturday afternoon:

*Peter Bernstein's intricate, winning, jewel-like solo interpretation of Montgomery's "Mi Cosa"

*Fareed Haque's brightly interwoven lines, well-articulated despite his stout tone, in the Thelonious Monk ballad everyone plays, "'Round Midnight"

*Henry Johnson's expert evocation of the Montgomery trademark style, featuring octaves and a softly burred, thumbed melodic line, in "West Coast Blues," another Montgomery evergreen

*Returning Indianapolis master Royce Campbell's charming, deceptively offhand rendition of "Days of Wine and Roses"

*Bobby Broom's tightly wound recasting of "The Surrey With the Fringe on Top" — that buggy was moving!
Pat Martino: He learned the importance of presence.

*The venerated, and venerable, Pat Martino's set, including the way his fleet passagework and slightly biting tone was lavished upon Wes' "Twisted Blues." The performance, like the whole set, was stunningly backed by organist Pat Bianchi and drummer Carmen Intorre. Besides the 72-year-old maestro, the guitarists they accompanied were Bernstein, Stryker, and Campbell.

In the panel discussion he took part in, moderated by Stryker and also including Bernstein, Martino noted usefully: "The culture has changed. When I started, the bands sometimes played seven sets a night, seven days a week." Musicians coming up were steeped in the life, learning on the job from their elders.

After citing the host of stars and their accomplished sidemen who filled the Atlantic City clubs back when Martino got his start as a teenager, he observed: "So many things were happening with such strong people that you learned a lot about the importance of presence, how to make an impression....It had nothing to do with the study of music; it was the enjoyment of life itself."

As the rookie in a star-studded R&B band led by Lloyd "Mr. Personality" Price, Martino knew what was required: "When it came time for the guitar solo, it had better be interesting."