Thinking about adding improvised Wes Montgomery-style chord lines to your arsenal?
Technically, when considering the material that a performer plays, there are no mysteries: we can analyze, understand, transcribe, and explain everything. What is not so easy to get a grasp on is the part of the performance that has to do with creative flow, evolved personal style, and those things that spring forth from the spiritual well.
We might think of Wes Montgomery’s improvisation style as being concerned with “unit structure” or “constructionism”. Essentially, melodic pieces are linked together in phrases, creating a chain which builds in excitement and tells a kind of story.
Some of these melodic fragments stand alone and are not developed, but are rather simply melodic statements.Other fragments may be repeated, built on, and developed. Still other phrases make use of the blues vocabulary and are riff-style in nature, possibly with or without further development.
This is part of the constructionist approach: one establishes a personal vocabulary and draws/improvises phrases from that, in a fashion where these phrases, statements, riffs and motifs are all threaded together in a cohesive way and fit the underlying chord changes of the song.
This first chord lick demonstrates a favored Wes device: the parallel movement of a diminished form, in the execution of the blues scale sound. It resolves to its tonic (F7).
Listen & Play
When it comes to the chord lines technique, I have found it can only be learned through years of transcribing chord patterns from those who did it successfully (especially Wes, Cal Collins, Barney Kessel). It is one of the most advanced of jazz guitar techniques, and requires a lot of study in order to arrive at a functional vocabulary that also embodies the player’s personal style.
Practice playing chord line patterns over and over in as many keys as possible and the art of linking the stock patterns together over standard tunes.
The Wes chord phrase below shows how the tonal centers can be used for stringing together phrases drawn from major and dominant 7 tonalities. Broadly speaking, when you practice for this technique, you practice and memorize phrases that fit various harmonic situations:
On a tune such as Days of Wine and Roses, you can approach the changes as demonstrated in example 2:
In order to spontaneously execute this technique, a player must have a methodology for creating a line of chords. Otherwise, the player has only a concept for comping, but not creating a line. The technique is all about how a line of chords is constructed and then how the chord lines are connected over changing tonal centers!
Listen & Play
This chord line shows a typical pattern that has a ii-V function. It can also be used as a C Dorian type of center. This is exemplary of a line that blends the ii and V chords.
Listen & Play
Here Wes demonstrates a line that can function as a dominant 7, but using chromaticism (alternating between Eb7 and D7).
Listen & Play
It’s a daunting task to develop this vocabulary of chord lines, that is why so few players are versed in the technique! The best place to start is in the keeping of a musical journal.
Over many years I have found the following to be helpful, with all the work kept in a notebook that I continually use for daily practice:
The work is worth the effort. Playing lines of improvised chords adds a whole new, and exciting, dimension to your playing….and we collectively advance the craft of jazz guitar!
To help you get your head and hands around the chords in this lesson, here are all the shapes used in the licks starting with 7th chords.
We'll now move on to m7 chords from these 4 Wes licks.
Lastly, here are the maj7 chords from the above Wes licks.
Jim Bastian is a full-time performer, career jazz educator, and vintage guitar enthusiast. He has written 10 jazz study books, including “How to Play Chordal Bebop Lines, for Guitar” (three volume set), “The Boss Guitar of Wes Montgomery” (in two volumes), “Sixteen Artist Jazz Guitar Solos”, “The trumpet Artistry of Chet Baker”, and “Chet Baker’s Greatest Scat Solos”. Visit Jim at www.jimbastian.com
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