Wes is Amazing!
Pretty much every Wes Montgomery solo is a lesson in phrasing, and they are all small works of art that contain lots of fantastic and creative ideas. But how does it work?
When you are improvising and finding your way through the changes using scales and arpeggios then you probably don’t manage that, and that could be because you are not focusing on the right things.
Let’s take a look at some Wes solos and see if you can figure out what to practice to develop that aspect in your playing. The essence of it is surprisingly simple.
I’ll focus mostly on examples from fairly simple songs which you might already play, so that should make it easier for you to take these concepts and apply them to your own playing as well, but the first one is a really fast song with not very many chords.
Notice how this is not a lot of long 8th note lines but instead short phrases and often with a lot of repetition:
Here’s the first A section
So there are a few 8th note lines but it is much more sparse a lot more space, he is really digging into that tritone interval to get the m7(13) sound out there.
Then he starts very simple and turns that into a repeated phrase:
So short phrases, in fact just a single note, that he repeats and develops. You should notice how he is pretty free and even if the phrases are not incredibly complicated then they are not placed very predictably in the form which makes them more interesting.
For a listener that is not a giant Jazz nerd, then that is much easier to relate to as a listener since it is not so dense and not an information overload. In this case, Wes sticks to this approach throughout the solo. If you compare this to how Pat Martino plays the song then that is of course a pretty massive contrast, and Pat’s approach to improvisation is very different from Wes even if he certainly also checked out a lot of Wes’s stuff
And before the comment section explodes, don’t get me wrong, Pat Martino’s take on impressions is amazing and I really like it, but it is a very different take on it. The thing you want to keep in mind is that while you are learning to make your way through a chord progression and play lines that flow through the harmony in a natural way, then you also want to work on playing simpler, melodic things as well so that you have more options.
#1 Making It Music
Listen to yourself
Often when you are new to learning Jazz then what you are playing becomes a never-ending stream of notes, but that is not really a melody. If you start working on making shorter statements and leave more space between them then you have time to listen to what you just played and then use that to decide what the next phrase should sound like.
This is in many ways the first step in learning to play what you hear because you give yourself room to actively listen for what you should play.
Give Your Solo An Arc
Being able to play shorter phrases also gives you a larger dynamic range since not playing in a solo often creates tension. Wes uses this incredibly well at the beginning of his solo on “No Blues” just starting with fairly basic Blues phrases with lots of space in between.
Example 2 – No Blues – Chorus 1 – first 8-9 bars
Focus On Rhythm
Another thing that is easier when you are working with shorter phrases is creating variation in the rhythm, something that Wes very clearly uses to great effect. Check out how takes this straightforward triad phrase:
and moves it around the bar in the solo on Missile Blues, which is a Blues in G, almost a Parker Blues.
He is first moving it around the bar and then starts to develop it further to continue in the progression. It is incredibly creative!
So a lot of this is not only about playing short phrases but also connecting and developing them so that they make sense and create a story for the listener. There are two ways to work on this that Wes employs in pretty much all of his solos. These two core techniques for creating melodies are probably in all great solos, but Wes is really good at using them!
Usually, we Call-response in music is a way to describe how two parts of an ensemble communicate, so for example how Muddy Waters has a conversation with the band answering each of his phrases:
But you can also use this way of thinking to connect phrases in a solo, often connected to some motivic development which I will also give you examples of later. Wes uses this very often. In this example, it serves as a way to deal with the repeating harmony in Satin Doll and lets him develop the phrases from bar to bar:
Here you can hear a clear call at the beginning, and then he turns around the melody to make that sound more like an answer then moves up the original phrase and plays a variation on that followed by a different answer.
Another way that Wes uses Call-Response in his phrases is to use either octaves or chords to have two layers. You can hear an example of this in The No Blues Solo where he uses different short blues phrases and then makes them call response with a single octave hit. Simple but effective!
This approach could be a good way to start because either on a Blues like this or with another song where you can easily add an octave hit every 2 or 4 bars. You can find quite a few examples of Wes doing this, in a recent video I covered one from The version of Four On Six off the incredible jazz guitar album (album cover maybe sheet music)
#3 Motivic Development
Call response is one of the major ways to connect phrases, but another equally important technique to develop, one that also depends on you being able to play solid short phrases or statements is Motivic Development, something that is often associated with classical and film music like Leit motifs
But it is a major part of how Wes works with melodies as well, even if he actually goes about it in a different way very often.
What makes Wes different
The first part of Motivic development is having a motif. And you have already heard a few examples of how Wes repeats phrases as he did in Impressions, and here is another great example from Satin Doll:
What is different here is that Wes does have a motif, but he is actually not really using motivic development, and just repeating the melody, only changing it he needs to fit it to the chords.
This is probably better described as a riff than as motivic development. I suspect that he got this from listening to swing music which is more common. In later styles, like Bebop there is a lot less repetition and the focus in the music is on another type of energy. But he doesn’t keep it as a riff, and instead uses those first repetitions to set up our expectations Then he develops the motif before playing another phrase as an end to this chapter of the solo. Check it out!
This way of connecting phrases across complete sections of the song is a really strong way to have more of a story happening in the solo
and is also often everything that is missing for beginner players when they have just reached the skills needed to play a solo over chord changes without getting lost or playing a lot of wrong notes. It is important that you don’t get stuck zooming in on what happens on each chord and instead also hear what the entire solo sounds like.
The Exercises That You Need For This
If you want to develop this aspect of your playing then there are exercises that you can start working on and ways to think about the music that will help you develop that skill. But the first thing that you want to do is of course to start recognizing it in the music. It is ear-training just like learning licks by ear, you are just listening for a different structure. The other exercises that will help you get more flexible with both motivic development and call-response are more improvisation based and if you want to get started with that then check out this video that covers some thoughts on how you can start working with shorter phrases in a creative way. Just like Wes!
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