Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note: The Evolution of an Album: Part 1

Jazz Guitar Life thanks Dr. Wayne Goins for his invaluable service to the Jazz Guitar Community – both past and present – in his roles as a player, educator and writer/researcher and we are especially grateful for his insight into this iconic album. When asked about which album “has it all”, Pat Metheny answered: “I would pick Smokin’ at the Half Note. Wes Montgomery and the Wynton Kelly Trio live in NYC at a club called the Half Note. Everything about it attracts me. The melodies, the feel, the ingenuity of all the players, the interaction, the sound. Everything.” (source) Dig into this article to learn more. Enjoy! – Lyle Robinson – Jazz Guitar Life


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Wes Montgomery’s Smokin’ at the Half Note: The Evolution of an Album


By now, it’s become an all too familiar event among jazz guitarists around the world: One of the greatest documented performances ever to take place in modern history occurred in June of 1965 when Wes Montgomery played at The Half Note jazz nightclub in New York City. He was backed by the supporting rhythm section trio of the Miles Davis band—pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Paul Chambers, and drummer Jimmy Cobb. It wasn’t the first time Wes had performed with this all-star backing group—he’d previously recorded a performance almost exactly three years to the day—captured ‘live’ at Tsubo in Berkeley, California on June 25, 1962, with tenor saxophonist Johnny Griffin in tow. Released on Riverside Records, Full House [RLP 434 in mono, RS 9434 stereo] represents a stunning performance for a group that hadn’t worked together before.

While that album was hailed as a phenomenal success by both fellow musicians and ardent music critics alike, their crowning achievement was yet to arrive. Over time, the album has become nothing less than a staple in the library of all serious fans of jazz guitar. Indeed, Smokin’ at the Half Note has been routinely identified as one of the quintessential recordings that easily falls in the categorized as “essential listening” among jazz enthusiasts. Pat Metheny, among others, has gone on record claiming that upon his first encounter with listening to the album, it literally altered his life. In the liner notes to the double disc CD, Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides,Metheny is quoted as citing ‘Smokin’’ as “the absolute greatest jazz guitar album ever made. It’s also the record that taught me how to play.”  

There have been scores of articles written about the impact and the influence of Smokin’ At The Half Note, mainly revered for the dazzling single-note wizardry and sophisticated chord solos weaved by Wes on each of those tracks from the album. There isn’t any real need to offer yet another in-depth analysis of how Wes built his amazing and often imitated three-tiered solo structures that we as jazz guitar enthusiasts have all come to know and love. But what I really wanna know is: How many pieces have been written about the evolution of the album itself? It might not be such common knowledge among fans of the LP to be aware that this album has gone through no less than five iterations over the years, with some slight (and other not-so-slight) alterations that make each one of them just a bit different from the other.

To start at the beginning, of course we remember the first time we saw that classic Verve cover—a beautiful Lake Placid blue with the neon-red glow of the club’s “Jazz Nightly” street sign, the album’s title above it in thick, baby-blue capital letters. One of the most interesting things about that cover, at first glance, is that it reads as an album listed under Wynton Kelly’s name. And in contrast to the album’s main title in thick baby blue wording, there’s the thin white font of capitalized letters: The “Wynton Kelly Trio,” underlined with Wes Montgomery’s name underneath it. Now, this—at least in my mind—somehow always felt almost as an afterthought. In any case, most guitarists still refer to it as a “Wes Montgomery” album. Once you opened the panels of the cardboard gatefold sleeves that held the vinyl platter, you caught the first glimpse of the black and white photos inside.

This initial 1965 release (in both mono and stereo) had the five songs that we are all familiar with—“No Blues,” “If You Could See Me Now,” “Unit 7,” “Four On Six,” and “What’s New.” And although the album’s title subtly implies the entire album is recorded live at the Half Note, alas, it is not: Although those five songs—among several others—were performed on the June 24th gig, the last three tunes were recorded again later in September 22 at Rudy Van Gelder’s studio in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey and inserted on the album as a replacement for the live versions. Only the first two tracks, “No Blues” and “If You Could See Me Now” represented the live “smokin’” session from June 24, which, at least to me, makes the album feel just slightly misleading. What’s more shocking, however, is that once you hear the live versions, you wonder just what in the world was Creed Taylor thinking by holding back the “real” versions—whose rightful place should have been on this album from the very start?

Most of us were unaware that two days later, even more music was recorded for posterity, which included five live Half Note performances: “Willow Weep For Me,” “Portrait of Jennie,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” “Oh, You Crazy Moon,” and “Misty,” all recorded on June 24. The specific date for the recording of a sixth live tune, “Impressions,” was only identified as being captured somewhere during the week-long stretch of the band’s road gig that lasted between June 22nd and 27th. But we never heard any of those swinging six tracks until more than three years after, when they appeared in late December 1968. By then, Wes had jumped ship (a year earlier) and joined Herb Alpert’s A&M Records, which went on to produce a bevy of commercial albums that were very much MOR (“middle of the road”) products aimed at audiences who preferred music that was less extreme than the hard bop music Wes was best known for delivering.

It is very likely this material surfaced and was released by Verve in December because Wes died only months earlier in June 15, 1968, at the age of forty-five, and Creed Taylor—the very same man that deemed this music previously unacceptable to the public at the time it was originally recorded—now suddenly found it more urgent to unveil. This leads us to the second iteration of the Half Note material that Wes fans recognize as Willow Weep For Me [V6-8765]. Released on Verve Records, the album boasts seven tracks of unreleased live material, including the title track along with “Portrait of Jennie,” “Impressions” “Four On Six,” “Surrey With The Fringe On Top,” “Oh You Crazy Moon,” and “Misty.” But to add more intrigue and confusion to the mix, four of those tunes were altered as an afterthought—with Verve clearly taking a page out of the A&M label’s playbook to appeal to the MOR crowd. Creed Taylor had highly-reputable conductor and orchestrator Claus Ogerman come in and provide a brass and woodwind section which overdubbed parts to ‘Willow,’ ‘Portrait,’ ‘Crazy,’ and ‘Misty’ on October 8, 1968 in New York City. This, however leads to the need for the third version of the ‘Smokin’’ tracks that Wes fans and jazz guitar purists were quietly hoping for.

This version appears in 1976 when a collection of performances of Wes Montgomery were released as part of double album, Verve Small Group Recordings [Verve VE2 2513] which has eleven songs on four sides highlighting Wes with the trio, along with other tracks featuring drummer Grady Tate, conga player Ray Barretto, and Hammond B3 organist Jimmy Smith. The  real significance of this collection involves the versions of ‘Willow,’ ‘Portrait,’ and ‘Misty’ which were finally released—for the first time on vinyl—with the Claus Ogerman wind/brass overdubs removed.

 A major turning point came when an impressive Japanese pressing arrived in December 1988 with not only the contents of the five original tracks from ‘Smokin’ At The Half Note (which could, theoretically, now be referred to as Volume 1) but a whole lot more. In this fourth iteration, it took the best of all three previous versions by doing three things: 1) It kept the two live tracks from Volume 1; 2) It added the seven live tracks from ‘Willow’; and 3) it included the Ogerman-stripped versions of those tracks from the ’76 small group LP. These nine tracks are what comprises Smokin’ At The Half Note Vol. 2 [J28J25117], thus it appears we are one step closer to what the live setlist may have sounded like! This was quickly followed by yet another Japanese remastered edition that appeared in 1990 [POCJ-1902]. It should be noted that both these Japanese issues similar in content and format (I therefore don’t count this one as a new iteration). One relatively minor-yet-significant revelation does deserve mention regarding the fourth iteration: Just as  ‘Willow,’ ‘Portrait,’ and ‘Misty’ were freed upon release of the 1976 small group recordings, “Oh, You Crazy Moon” was the fourth song finally freed of the brass/wind of Ogerman, heard for the first time on this CD.

And then there’s yet a fifth rendition—the two-disc set in 1995 by Polygram Records (who now owned the Verve masters) , Impressions: The Verve Jazz Sides [Verve 314 521 690-2]. This CD set boasts quite a bit of material, with a delightful array of selected cuts from several Wes Montgomery albums, including tracks from Movin’ Wes, Goin’ Out of My Head, California Dreamin’, and Jimmy & Wes: The Dynamic Duo, and Further Adventures of Jimmy and Wes, Tequila, and Just Walkin’. These twelve tracks cover the span of his tenure with Verve—but this material is just an appetizer for what fans were really waiting for. The bulk and highlight of the double disc set involves the next thirteen tracks, which essentially puts volumes 1 and 2 of the Half Note material under one roof.

The remastered sound quality is incredible, so superior to previous versions—the clarity and separation of instruments is astounding. Jimmy Cobb’s drums and Paul Chambers’ bass are center, with Wes’ guitar in the right ear, and Wynton’ Kelly’s piano is in the left ear. The audience enthusiastic applause is also quite audible. The last three tracks of the first disc, along with the entire second disc of the with an added bonus—the originally edited version of  Wes’s June 26 performance of “Surrey With The Fringe On Top” on the Verve 1968 ‘Willow’ album is on track 14 of the first disc, but we finally get to hear the reconstructed and restored version [track 15.] Here’s another little bonus: Since this collection has all the live versions and the tracks from the Van Gelder studio session, you get two versions of “Four on Six.”

An even greater bonus is the added transcription of the dual interview given by Howard Mandel to none other than Russell Malone and Mark Whitfield, as they listen to an advance copy of the ‘Impressions’ album that’s being described here. Their detailed comments regarding Wes Montgomery’s musical career and influence are thoroughly engaging, with both gentlemen providing a wealth of rare and insightful information. In November 2021, yet another remastered issue of Smokin’ At The Half Note appeared (the Verve material now marketed and distributed by Universal Music) under the title of The Complete Smokin’ At The Half Note Vol. 2 [UCCU-8200].

Then there was the sixth rendition of Smokin’ At The Half Note released by Verve [B0003934-02]—an impressive 2005 release that basically capitalizes on the work collected in the ‘Impressions’ CD, but eschewing the bulk of Disc 1 and only focusing on the ‘Half Note material from volumes 1 and 2, including the stripped overdubs. The physical packaging of the album is most impressive, which features previously unreleased photos on the tray card and booklet of Wes at the Half Note gig for which the music is famous, not to mention the highly-detailed liner notes that inspired me to do more detective work to further chronicle the historical sequence of these various releases (which eventually led to the writing of this article.)

Even more pleasurable, though, is being able to hear—for the first time—the lengthier versions of dialogue from the emcee Alan Grant. His comments really add to the feeling of “being there” when listening to this rendition of the live album—complete with glasses clinking and enthusiastic applause supplied by the audience during the exciting, unfiltered performance. Grant’s banter is warm and inviting as he introduces Wes and the band individually after their performance of “What’s New.” Previously unreleased on any of the earlier iterations, Grant provides a beautiful verbal backdrop to create context for the recording: The quartet is performing as a part of the “Portraits In Jazz” series; the show is being taped live each Friday night for the WABC radio show; he informs the listeners that Wes has just returned to America from a successful European tour with the this band; he announces the venue’s location at 289 Hudson Street (the corner of Hudson and Spring.)  

It is also wonderful to hear Wes laugh as he exchanges delightful banter with Grant during the course of the evening as they work their way through the setlist. Grant asks Wes what tunes will they be playing, then introduces the tunes over the airwaves—just listen to the dialogue before the start of “Willow Weep For Me.” While other versions are seven minutes and thirty seconds, this one is 9’08”; at end of the tune, Grant talks about Wes appearing there until Sunday, and goes straight into the comment for the airwaves, “A pretty ballad now, a ‘Portrait of Jenny…’

For all the other versions of this music, his dialogue gets cut off or faded out in the engineering room for the sake of saving space, as if it’s not worthy of preserving. But here, he gets more time and space as he is heard acknowledging both the beginning and end of several songs. He casually introduces “Oh You Crazy Moon” and “Misty;” when this particular song ends, Grant is absolutely elated with Montgomery’s playing, saying to the audience, “how about that?” then, inquisitively to Montgomery, “What were you doing?…Wes?”

At one point, Grant and Wes exchange dialogue for almost thirty seconds, as he asks Wes about the band’s routine for working out the tunes. Grant humorously informs the listeners that earlier in the broadcast the phone rang and someone had called in to make a “special request” regarding their next tune. Wes joins in as they share a laugh before the band launches into the tune, which just so happened to be “Surrey With The Fringe On Top.” Near the end of the set, you hear Alan sign off for the radio broadcast, reminding his loyal listeners to tune in “tomorrow at 3, stay beautiful…”

This alone is worth the price of admission. Indeed, for the first time, we get to hear the actual exchange between the emcee and the artist. All totaled, there are thirteen minutes more on this disc than the previous iterations. For my money, this is what makes the 2005 Universal Music Verve Masters Series version of Smokin’ At The Half Note the best of the bunch. So, there you have it. The legendary New York City nightclub owned and operated by Mike Canterino and his family was having a glorious moment while Wes and his band made their grand stand. The music played that night was epic—worthy of no less than six versions of the show that still represents—in any format—one of the greatest events in music history.

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Author Info: Dr. Wayne Everett Goins, University Distinguished Professor of Music (2015), is the Director of Jazz Studies in the School of Music, Theater, & Dance at Kansas State University, where he conducts big bands and teaches combos, private guitar lessons, jazz theory and jazz improvisation courses. He is also a prolific writer and published author many times over. For more detialed information please click here.


    • Hey Dave and thanks for dropping by and checking out Dr. Goins article! As mentioned this is just part 1 🙂 More great revelations to come so keep an eye out.

      Take care and all the best.

      Lyle – Jazz Guitar Life

  1. Wayne Goins excellent, enough said! Looking forward to working with you in the future. My Dad would have really enjoyed this read, MY Friend for sure!
    Thank you Sir
    Best, Robert
    Additional Email Bobbymont@me.com

    • robert, thanks SO much, my brother–what a wonderful compliment u have paid to us–and i can’t wait for the fans to read your contribution to PART II of this article, coming soon!!!

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