When I bought Wes Montgomery's LP "MOVIN' WES"(Verve) in 1965, I actually purchased it by mistake. Believe it or not, I bought the record because of the photos on the cover. At the time, I was still playing drums, but had been listening to a lot of B.B. King, Albert King, and Freddy King, not to mention my fascination with the wonderful R&B of those days and from the past. Even harder to believe is that I had some B.B. King albums, on the Kent label, where he was actually pictured playing a Gibson ES-175. So, the Gibson L-5, that Wes carries on the cover, looked just like a fancier version of B.B.'s guitar, so I thought that the Wes album would simply sound the same. I didn't realize that this purchase in error was about to change my life! I had forgotten that some years before Chantays guitarist Bob Spickard had played "BOSS GUITAR"(Riverside) for me. My recollection, upon hearing that recording, was just that it was too fast and too complex for me to connect with, then. However, the moment that I put on Wes' version of "Caravan" I knew that my life was never going to be the same. After hearing drummer Grady Tate's fantastic playing, I knew, and for certain, that I was not destined to be a great drummer, not even an adequate drummer. Sometime later, Wes Montgomery served as my inspiration to try and become a great guitarist. I read in the liner notes that Wes had picked-up the guitar at 19 years of age, the same age as me in that moment, and so, I said to myself, "If I could just become 1/2 as good as he is, I would be really happy with that!" And so, my quest began, just like that.
Melody Statement and Cadenza on:
"Born to be Blue"(Mel Tormé-Robert Wells)
Beyond the attraction to the velocity of "Caravan," I was also attracted to funky sound of Grady Tate's snare drum and his style of playing. All of this was packaged within the very brassy and punchy arrangements of Johnny Pate. The horn section included 3 trumpets; 4 trombones; and a tuba. When you add in the sonic dimension of a master recording engineer like Phil Ramone, the sound design and presentation is really spectacular. On this recording, there were also Wes originals like; "Movin' Wes"(Pt I); "Movin' Wes"(Pt II) "[both of which added the very funky Latin percussion of Willie Bobo, who was also to become one of my heroes]; and "In and Out." The rest of the rhythm section included pianist Bobby Scott, who is perhaps best known as the composer of "A Taste of Honey", but is probably the call for this date because of his funky/bluesy style on the piano; and the great Bob Cranshaw on bass.
I suppose, like many young people, at the time, I did not pay much attention to the ballads. And so, my initial inspiration to understand the wonderful song, "Born to be Blue" was inspired by hearing the very soulful and heart-wrenching Ray Charles version which appears on his "RECIPE FOR SOUL"(ABC-Paramount) album with a beautiful Sid Feller arrangement. Again, as Miles Davis often said, and I must paraphrase: "to truly play a ballad with love and feeling, you have to know the lyrics." As I have supplied the lyrcis below, you can see why one might get the feeling that it is as if the song had been written especially for Ray Charles. If you become enamored with the Wes Montgomery interpretation, you must make the effort to hear the Ray Charles version. It will be worth it, trust me!
Some folks were meant to live in clover,
But they are such a chosen few.
And clover being green is something I've never seen
'Cause I was born to be blue.
When there's a yellow moon above me,
They say there's moonbeams I should view
But moonbeams being gold are something I can't behold
'Cause I was born to be blue.
When I met you, the world was bright and sunny
When you left, the curtain fell
I'd like to laugh, but nothing strikes me funny
Now my world's a faded pastel
Well, I guess I'm luckier than some folks,
I've known the thrill of loving you.
And that alone is more than I was created for
'Cause I was born to be blue.
As you now know from looking at the lyrics the form of "Born to be Blue" is the traditional A-A-B-A, 32-bar song form. The reason I initially chose to examine this particular performance was the fact that Wes' interpretation of the melody was so loose, so very far from the Ray Charles version that I had come to love so much. Understanding Wes' approach, I learned that, if one is 'in the flow' of the piece, one can be a free with the melody as one's imagination with allow them to be. The process can begin with the most simple of ornamentations, and can then be expanded to the point where the melody is almost hidden within one's improvised phrases. With regards to my notation, because this is a ballad and the tempo is relatively slow, this should always serve as a warning that there are going to be a lot more notes than usual. This performance conforms to that notion.
Though I have always been a big proponent of 4 bars per system, it is virtually impossible to stick to that with this kind of density of notes. So, for the most part, I decided to write out the transcription using 3 bars per line in most cases. Of course we are used to seeing straight-8th notes written and knowing that they are to be interpreted with a sense of 'swing' - as if they had been written as triplets. In this case, though the piece is written using mostly 16th-note subdivisions, the 16th-note must be interpreted the same way, with a sense of swing. You will also sense that Wes is also playing in a beautifully relaxed manner and often, on purpose, is laying back behind the beat. During the faster passages, multiple 16th-note groupings, including groups of 6 and/or 8 per one beat at times, Wes tends to lean into the beat a little more, playing a bit more on top of the beat. So, be watchful of that. Again, when a jazz improvisation is taking place, no one notational method is going to be 100% accurate, so you have to be flexible in how you interpret what you hear.
The element of 'the blues' is present almost everywhere as Wes travels through the song. If I was to point to specific bars, you can hear these elements in [A] bars: 4 and 6; [A2] bars: 4 and 6; and in [A3] bars: 5-6. As you can see Wes plays virtually the same phrase each time bar 6 appears. This phrase is intended to resemble the lyrics which appear in the 2nd half of the 3rd line of each [A] section, even though Wes' phrase has more notes in it. One of the most remarkable aspects of how the blues language can transcend what it seems that a certain chord might indicate; which means that, on paper, there can appear to be notes which would, in another circumstance, be considered 'wrong.' It is especially interesting when Wes used the bluesy 3rds, Eb-Gb, which seem to be very much connected to the blues areas of Ab7 or Abm7, yet they appear in bar 4 of [A] as the Emaj7 passes to A7(b5) before returning to Abm7. In bar 5 of [A3], he does this again as the chords move from Abm7 to A7(13). You also notice that, at times, Wes actually observes the 1/2-step up change to A7(13) from either Ab7 or Abm7, and other times, he stays closer to the blues language associated with the center being Ab.
Wes Montgomery, with his great ears, and great musical instincts, also knew how to apply the minor pentatonic to other chord forms. For example, in [A2], over the Emaj7 chord, he applies the G# minor pentatonic(G#, B, C#, D#, F#). And, in the last bar of [B], over the Bmaj7 chord, he uses the D# minor pentatonic(D#, F#, G#, A#, C#). Both of these pentatonics are built upon the 3rd degree of the major scale and produce the following color tones: maj3rd, 5th, 6th, maj7th, 9th. This is always a melodic 'can't miss' situation when playing over any major 7th chord.
The [B] section offers classic Montgomery lines over ii-Vs. As he plays over the alternating Em7-A7(13) chords, viewing 'E' as the root, you see an emphasis on the 9th(F#) and the 11th(A), and below them both, the 5th(B). You also see his familiar
arpeggios in Bar 3, as they chose to employ the b5 substitute of Eb7(9) in place of Ab7(alt.). It is a nice touch. His resolution to Dmaj7 is a solid part of the linear vocabulary of everyone who plays this music. I am referring to the conclusion of the line C#(maj7th)-A(5th)-B(6th). Then if you study the ii-V to Gmaj7, bars 5-6, you can see that it is all completely diatonic. He use no alterations over the D7 chord at all. However, in his iim7b5-V to Bmaj7, he does slip in the b9(G) over the F#7(alt.), it is a simple touch but it stands out. When passing back to [A3] via yet another b5 substitute, here an A7(13) in place of Eb7(alt.), you see that Wes uses the nice color tone of the b5(Eb/D#) along with the 9th(B). To remind you, throughout the solo you see his beautiful usage of varied arpeggios over the various chords that appear.
It is also worth noting, where Wes and his approach to ii-Vs is concerned, that he uses a familiar V-Imaj device that seems to indicate the diminished scale with the usage of a triad, 1/3rd below the root of the chord. The best example of this can be viewed in [A2] over the B7 chord in bar 3. Notice the G# triad(C/B#-D#-G#) within the grouping of six. In the two other places that this ii-V occurs, he offers lines which present the movement of the natural 9(C#) dropping down to the b9(C-natural) before ascending to the 5th(Gb/F#).
I had forgotten that I had transcribed the Cadence, that Wes improvised before the final chords are played, during my college years. Perhaps at that moment in time, I was more fascinated by his octaves than other elements? This transcription begins with his last phrase, in octaves, from bar 7 of [A3] as his solo is ending. It's really lovely how he descends through a series of arpeggiations to finally land on the open 5th of E-B. And though no 3rds or 7ths are played, I would describe this as really being Em7. Then, he slides into an Abm7 from Gm7. The brass then play a nice Db7(9b5) voicing as Wes ascends in single-notes via a Db Mixolydian mode, but beginning on a Bb. Then, he vaults to a series of 3rds, descending from F-Db, through all the majestic consonant extensions[Bb(13th); Gb(11th); and Eb(9th)], finally landing on Ab-F as the brass sustain a rich sounding Db7(13) chord. It still stands a beautiful ending for a wonderful song.
From a historical perspective, you may find it interesting to go back and listen to Wes' version of this same tune as he played it on "FULL HOUSE"(Riverside) which was recorded in 1962 and featured Wes alongside the Miles Davis rhythm section of: Wynton Kelly: piano; Paul Chambers: bass; and Jimmy Cobb: on drums. Their interpretaion of "Born to be Blue" was not included on the original LP, but thanks to the extra time afforded us with CD technology, we now get to enjoy this performance. It is always interesting to compare and contrast the approaches and the performances. If one was to simply observe the obvious, the Riverside 'live' performance is 7:23 minutes long, while the Verve version is only 3:37. On the Verve version, Wes' solo begins at [B] and continues through the final [A3] before launching into his Cadenza which we also present here. The entire solo is played in octaves while Wes only plays single lines on the Riverside version. This is a most crucial difference. He also plays a nice Cadenza on this version, but here he begins with single-note lines which lead to a chordal passage. All done so very musically by this great master.
I am going to hope that the presentation of a ballad, a standard, will give everyone a sense of just how broad your own approach could be when presenting and interpreting a melody. The better you know the song, the more free and loose you will become in stating the melody, making it your own. Again, this includes knowing the lyrics, and perhaps even making the effort to familiarize yourself with at least two great vocal versions of the same song. Here you have received another insight into the greatness that was Wes Montgomery! What a very special player he was!!!