Wednesday, June 1, 2011

June 1: Wes Montgomery, "Bumpin'"

Artist: Wes Montgomery
Song: "Bumpin'"
Album: Bumpin'
Year: 1965

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When one looks at the entire history of recorded music, more specifically how it is presented by the mass media, it is strange to see that a certain term can be a positive in one genre, whilst the exact same description can be a negative connotation within another musical style.  This is rarely more clear than when one considers the term "smooth," as it is a necessity within styles like r&b, but when applied to things like jazz, it can alter ones' perception of the music in question.  Throughout the late 1950's and most of the 1960's, it was the formless, almost chaotic arrangements that gained the most attention within the jazz world, and while one cannot take anything from such artists, there was another side to the genre that was still hard at work.  It was this more relaxed, more controlled, yet just as brilliant sound that also helped to push the jazz genre forward, and few musicians were more integral to this than the great Wes Montgomery.  Standing today as one of the most talented and influential guitar players in history, there was always an element of "cool" within his compositions, and to this day, his sound is completely distinctive.  It was the way in which he was able to achieve somewhat dark, and superbly deep moods that makes his 1965 album, Bumpin', a true jazz milestone, and there are few tracks that better define Wes Montgomery than the album's title track.

As "Bumpin'" rolls in and begins to take shape, so many later artists and bands come to mind, and it becomes quite clear just how wide-reaching and influence Wes Montgomery had.  From The Doors to John Scofield, there is a gentle, yet almost haunting tone to the sound, and it is largely due to the tone put into place by the rhythm section of Bob Cranshaw and Grady Tate.  The meandering, yet unquestionably dark bassline from Cranshaw is one of the finest in jazz history, and it is almost as if the bass is stalking the other instruments at various points.  Tate adds a steady, but somewhat uneasy to the song, and there are points where it is his fills that enhance this darker mood.  The way in which pianist Richard Kellaway gives "Bumpin" a distinctive sway is one of the most impressive aspects of the entire song, and though his playing is often a bit buried in the mix, it is without question one of the most important elements of the entire song.  Yet it may very well be the flawless integration of the strong section that sets "Bumpin'" so far apart from its peers, and it is also this sonic component that truly pushes the mood to an uncanny level.  The way in which the harp and violin are able to play contrasting line to the guitar is one of the most captivating aspects of the entire song, and the overall level of emotion that comes from the combined sound is one which must be experienced to be properly understood.

However, in terms of both placement within the mix, as well as the pure performance, there is never a focus anywhere on "Bumpin'" that is not on the guitar of Wes Montgomery.  Truth be told, there may not be another guitar player in history that has been able to express as much emotion as one can hear here, and it is the delicate way in which he deploys these feelings that makes the composition so fantastic.  Working through what is perhaps closer to a blues arrangement than one of jazz, Montgomery clearly understands the concept of where "not" to play, and it is the perfect balance between winding progressions and sparse spaces that enables "Bumpin'" to become so captivating.  It is this loose, yet clearly defined tone that he sets which makes "Bumpin'" so unique, and there is a clear sense of enjoyment that comes through in his playing.  Mixing together both diverse rhythmic patterns, as well as changes in octave, Montgomery pulls out all the stops and shows his entire musical arsenal, cementing his name as a true guitar great in just under seven minutes.  Furthermore, Montgomery strikes the ideal balance between playing in front of his band with leading them, and the interplay found here is truly second to none.  Taking all of this together, Wes Montgomery also adds the ideal finishing touch to the uniquely dark mood, and there is truly no other recording in history that is on par with the sound found on "Bumpin'."

By today's standards, one might be pressed to label the tone and style on "Bumpin'" as "smooth jazz," and yet this often carries with it a negative connotation.  However, when one considers the time that the song was released, there is no question that the recording was an extremely progressive work, and it represents the epitome of the fusion of jazz and soul music.  There are points throughout "Bumpin'" where it is clear that Wes Montgomery is letting the emotion of the song guide his performance, and this results in some of the most breathtaking and truly inspiring guitar lines ever recorded.  The way in which he locks in with the rhythm section is equally as brilliant, and "Bumpin'" remains one of the few jazz recordings which bring a mood that are able to sweep up every listener.  From this uncanny interplay between the guitar and rhythm, to the almost dueling sound added by the piano, to the deep and soulful addition of the string section, "Bumpin'" simply has it all, and it is the way in which all of these elements come together as a single unit that makes it such an iconic moment in music history.  Though even in today's jazz world, guitar players are rarely given the credit the deserve within the genre, there is no arguing just how essential their contributions have been over the decades, and few have been more influential than Wes Montgomery.  Standing as one of a handful of musicians that have truly touched every genre of music, there may be no song that better represents the sheer genius of Wes Montgomery than what one finds within his 1965 masterpiece, "Bumpin'."

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