Song: Unit 7
Solo Performed By: Wes Montgomery
Album: Smokin’ at the Half Note
I’ve wanted to write about this solo for a long time.
Everything I’ve ever heard or read about Smokin’ at the Half Note mentions any number of the following things: the excitement of two titans coming together in a live gig, the exceptional rhythm section of Miles Davis alums, the epic solos on the tune “No Blues” (clocking in around 13 minutes), the beautiful ballads. But I never heard anyone talk about “Unit 7”. It was as if it didn’t exist. Which boggled my mind, because since the first time I heard it I’ve considered it my favorite Wes solo ever, and one of the greatest guitar solos of all time.
The song itself is basically a 12-bar blues with a bridge. The bridge is fairly simple, winding through a few II-V progressions on its way back to the blues section, but it is different enough to provide the soloists a little harmonic interest to work with. In fact it is this bridge section that, in my opinion, serves to elevate this tune above the others on the album. Without the bridge, you’ve got just another blues, and it’s pretty damn hard to beat “No Blues” in that department. But the addition of the bridge provides Wes with the platform to showcase his two best qualities as a musician: (1) his soulful blues playing (over the blues sections), and (2) his melodicism (over the bridge sections).
The solo follows Wes’ favored solo structure of single note lines, followed by octave lines, followed by block chords. After a nice piano solo by Wynton Kelly, Wes comes in around the 2:30 mark with a classic blues lick, and the first thing you notice is his tone. Big, full and round, and surprisingly present.
The next thing you notice is Wes’ patience. I once read a quote about Wes from Lenny Tristano (as told to Joe Satriani): “You know, Wes never played a wrong note. He never played an extra note, he never left one out”. Listen to these single note lines, and he always sounds completely relaxed, and never overplays.
There is a quality that the best players have that is hard to put into words, but you know it when you hear it. It’s a quality of being in complete control of their instrument. It’s not so much in the notes they choose (which are usually great), but the quality of the sound, the tone, the command you hear in their fingers. You can hear that their instrument is a part of them, that it’s some kind of wild thing that they have not only tamed but mastered. Stevie Ray Vaughan immediately comes to mind when I think about this quality. John Coltrane had it too. And Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Kenny Burrell, Jeff Beck, Michael Brecker, George Benson, Clifford Brown, Joe Satriani, Pat Metheny…you get the idea. Wes had that quality in everything he did, and it is on full display here.
Over the first bridge (at about 2:56) Wes plays a really nice counterpoint line, keeping a sort of pedal tone in the upper register while he subtly moves the lower notes around. It’s a beautiful example of his melodic sense – where most players see a II-V progression and jump all over it, blowing a million notes per second or playing one of thousands of rote patterns, Wes plays a simple melody that just sings.
At about 3:18 Wes plays a really nice melodic quote from the Sonny Rollins tune “Pent-Up House”, made famous by Clifford Brown (another great solo, by the way). This kind of musical quoting – where a soloist will mimic a melodic line from another song or even another solo – is a long-standing tradition in jazz. Charlie Parker was the king of it.
When I listen to this solo, time and again the most prevalent thing I take away from it is movement. Try listening to the solo while keeping your body perfectly still. It’s impossible. Particularly the section starting around 3:42. It’s another bridge section (can you tell I’m a sucker for the melodic stuff?), and Wes falls into it by playing a beautiful cascade of notes. It’s really just a descending C major arpeggio, but he plays it by sliding up to each note, creating a sort of leaping-up-the-down-escalator sound, before landing solidly on the minor third (F) of the Dm7 chord that starts the bridge. Too much! But that’s just the beginning – he plays some more tasty lines in the bridge, and then at about 3:50, Wes plays my favorite lick of the solo, and one of my all time favorites. When you analyze it, it’s really a fairly basic turnaround lick, another set of II-Vs. But somehow it manages to sound so fresh and invigorating, mainly due to the interval leaps he makes, which recall Charlie Parker’s intervallic gymnastics (who in turn was influenced by Bach). This is one of those magical musical ideas that defies analysis – even though I have studied it and can even play it pretty well, I still shake my head in joy and wonder every time I hear it.
Wes ends his single note lines with, appropriately, a few blues licks, before moving into the octave section.
I’m not sure if Wes was the first guitarist to ever play solo lines in octaves (I doubt it, but it’s certainly possible), but he was far and away the master of it. Ever since, anyone who has ever played an octave line on guitar immediately invokes a comparison to Wes.
When a guitarist plays lines in octaves, their hand is essentially locked in a specific position, and the entire arm from fingertips to elbow must move as one in order to navigate the fretboard. Now, Wes was by far the fastest octave player around, but even having said that, the technique still forces the player to forego any really complex lines in favor of more melodic ones – it’s a technique that actually takes “technique” out of the equation. Most techniques are developed in order to facilitate the playing of more complex musical ideas, sometimes to the detriment of the music itself, the melody. Playing in octaves achieves just the opposite; it’s a technique that actually hinders the playing of more complex ideas, therefore putting more focus on the music itself. It’s a brilliant concept when you analyze it, and it becomes even more brilliant when you take away the analysis and understand that that’s just the sound and the melodic lines that Wes was hearing in his head.
In Wes’ hands, the octave section provides not just a melodic boost, but also a rhythmic boost as well. The solo really picks up steam when Wes starts in with the octaves. Check out the line at 4:30 – it’s another escalator-type descending octave run leading into the bridge, and when you hear it you can feel it in your gut, pulling you back down to begin another ascent. This leads to an extraordinary section that builds the momentum even more with just a few simple syncopated lines (4:40-4:50).
Which leads us to the block chord section. Until I started to really study Wes, I was completely befuddled by block chord solos on guitar. I’d listen to Wes, and George Benson, and Joe Pass, and think, “How do they DO that? They must know every possible chord voicing known to man! If I practice for the rest of my life I’ll never learn all those chords.” Well I did try – I went so far as to purchase the classic book “Chord Chemistry” by Ted Greene, which takes a systematic approach to learning, well, every chord voicing known to man, many of them difficult or even impossible to play on guitar, unless you’re Allan Holdsworth. The book remains in pristine shape to this day – I barely cracked it open.
But once I started to actually listen and study Wes, I sort of got it – I couldn’t necessarily do it on guitar, but I could at least wrap my head around it. The thing is, Wes never played more than a dozen or so different chord voicings in his solos. That’s right – a dozen or so. No chord chemistry nonsense – just the basic forms in the higher registers, with a few variations thrown in for various extensions (9ths, 11ths, 13ths, etc).
The block chord section is similar to the octave section, in that it is so rhythmic and it grooves so hard. Most of the “A” sections are dedicated to syncopated chord strumming, often on the same chords for long periods. Then the bridge sections are used for more complex chords and rhythms. For example, listen at around 5:15, just before the bridge – this follows a long string of very similar chords, with a common top note providing a sort of pedal or anchor. Then the bridge kicks in with another patented rapid-fire descending chord cascade before going back to the syncopated pedal chords.
The solo winds down and it’s back to the main melody and out. When the song is over, I always go back to the feeling of movement. I’m almost physically exhausted by the end of this solo.
Joe Satriani was once asked in an interview to name three of his musical heroes. Naturally his first hero was Jimi Hendrix. His second, Billy Gibbons, was a bit of a surprise but not a stretch. The third musician he mentioned was Wes Montgomery. I’ll close with this excerpt:
“When you sing one of his solos you feel like you’re in the presence of greatness. It’s like reading a poem that’s perfect and you just can’t believe someone came up with that combination of words that you use every day but just in a different order. And that’s kind of like what music is. We all have the same notes in our pocket, but the great ones pull out the right ones at the right time. Wes was one of those guys. He had the timing, the rhythm, the note selection, he had an incredible sense of melody and harmony, and he performed impeccably.”
Other writing on Wes Montgomery:
You can read the full Joe Satriani interview here.
You can read Pat Metheny’s fantastic liner notes to the Jazz Icons DVD featuring Wes here.