There’s still an enigmatic quality about jazz great Wes Montgomery, although he made plenty of records before he died of a heart attack, at age 45, in 1968. Maybe it’s the gap between his smooth style and the emotion it could convey. Or maybe it’s that he performed and recorded in small combos, but his big hits came when his often brilliant interpretations of pop songs were slathered with orchestral frosting.
Fans hoping for some great revelation won’t find it on “Echoes of Indiana Avenue,’’ fascinating as it is. It collects nine recently unearthed tracks from one studio session and two live dates, all apparently recorded in 1957-58, just before his career took off. Details aren’t certain, but all were “possibly’’ recorded in his native Indianapolis, where Indiana Avenue was a hotbed of jazz clubs at the time. The first full album of unheard Montgomery material in decades, it’s being released on his birthday, Tuesday.
The track list reads like jazz’s greatest hits, with runs through “Round Midnight,’’ “Take the ‘A’ Train,’’ “Misty,’’ and “Body and Soul.’’ Montgomery seems to be playing his usual Gibson, and chording and fleet single-note runs show his emerging style.
The live “Straight, No Chaser’’ features Montgomery’s brothers, Monk on bass and Buddy on piano. But Melvin Rhyne is the most valuable supporting player, playing organ on “Round Midnight’’ and “Darn That Dream’’ and piano on upbeat opener “Diablo’s Dance’’ and “Nica’s Dream.’’ Drummer Paul Parker backs them skillfully on all four studio cuts.
“Nica’s Dream,’’ a polished version of a Horace Silver composition, most resembles the atmospheric Montgomery tracks we know, with the guitarist personalizing relatively straightforward passages through subtleties of tone and timing.
Still, most jazz fans will recognize Montgomery’s playing immediately on all of these tracks - except one.
The closing jam, called “After Hours Blues,’’ features a happy club crowd calling out encouragement as Montgomery plays in a Chicago blues style, snapping off notes on what sounds like a solid-body electric. The playing is a little showy - even flamboyant by Montgomery’s standards - and it’s a kick to hear him cut loose.
This is an essential buy for serious fans, but newcomers would be better off turning to “The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery,’’ “Smokin’ at the Half Note,’’ and “Bumpin’ ’’ to learn why such reverence exists in the first place.