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In His “Reality”: Philly Soul Meets Jazz On Monk Montgomery Reissue

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Monk Montgomery - Reality

UPDATE 9/10/13: Just yesterday, we published the following review of Monk Montgomery’s 1974 album Reality, produced, arranged, and co-written by a true legend of soul music and architect of The Sound of Philadelphia, Mr. Bobby Martin.  Today, word has arrived that Martin, 83, has passed away following a brief illness.  A masterful orchestrator of horns and strings with a background steeped in jazz, Martin created music that was sweet and sophisticated, romantic and wrenching. and always positively soulful.  Whether with Lou Rawls, Billy Paul, The O’Jays, The Manhattans, L.T.D. or Monk Montgomery, Bobby Martin’s music is for the ages.  We’ll always remember.

Nestled in the Philadelphia International Records discography between The O’Jays’ Survival and Billy Paul’s Got My Head on Straight, you’ll find two of the label’s most unusual releases: Potpourri, from trumpeter Thad Jones and drummer Mel Lewis, and Reality, from bassist Monk Montgomery.  These 1974 LPs represented PIR’s first major stabs into the jazz market, though elements of the genre certainly informed the shaping of the Philly soul sound itself.  And now, nearly forty years after its release, a freshly remastered compact disc edition of Montgomery’s third and final solo album is indeed a Reality.  Big Break Records has restored one of the most criminally unknown PIR titles to CD in an expanded edition with one bonus track.

In the album’s original liner notes, critic Joe Delaney praised William Howard “Monk” Montgomery for having “de-bastardized the Fender bass.”  Born in 1921 in Indianapolis, Indiana, Montgomery was the older brother of guitarist John Leslie a.k.a. “Wes” and pianist/vibraphonist Charles a.k.a. “Buddy”; the three had frequently played together as the Montgomery Brothers.  But Monk’s C.V. was hardly less impressive than that of his kid brother, who found his greatest fame recording a series of pop-jazz albums for producer Creed Taylor’s early A&M-distributed CTI label before his untimely death in 1968 at just 45 years of age.  Monk is recognized today as the first prominent electric bassist in jazz, switching from double bass to “go electric” as early as 1951 and making his name as a member of Lionel Hampton’s orchestra.  (Wes also got his start with Hampton’s unit and though younger than Monk, rose to prominence first.)  After a brief time in the Montgomery Johnson Quintet with Wes, Buddy, tenor sax man Alonzo Johnson and drummer Robert Johnson, Monk founded the Mastersounds with Buddy on vibes, Benny Barth on drums and Richie Crabtree on piano.  Still later, he played with vibraphone masters Cal Tjader and Red Norvo.  Monk only recorded three solo albums in his lifetime, however. 1969’s aptly-titled Motown release It’s Never Too Late was followed by 1971’s Bass Odyssey on the Motown-distributed Chisa imprint.  Reality, his first and only PIR album, was also his last solo effort.

Read all about it after the jump – plus the full track listing and order link!

Few would be surprised by the personnel on Reality.  The names are familiar from both the first iteration of PIR’s house orchestra MFSB as well as from the original Salsoul Orchestra.  Joining Montgomery on Fender bass were Ron “Have Mercy” Kersey on guitar, Vince Montana on vibes, Larry Washington on congas, Ronnie Baker on bass and Earl Young on drums, all under the aegis of producer and arranger Bobby Martin.  Don Renaldo’s Horns and Strings, naturally, were enlisted, too.  This Philly contingent showed off their jazz chops on two tracks, while the remaining six featured a core group of Montgomery on Fender bass, Martin on Fender Rhodes piano, Danny Skea on electric piano and clavinet, Ron Feuer on organ, and Santo Sazino on drums, plus string and background vocal sweetening from the Sigma Sound regulars.  Martin arranged the entire first side of the LP, ceding the second half to Montgomery, Feuer and PIR mainstay Jack Faith.  Reality proves wonderfully cohesive, blurring the lines so that it’s tough to point out where jazz ends and Philly soul begins.

Swelling strings introduce the title track, penned by Martin.  Montgomery’s inviting, dexterous bass line is at the track’s center, but all of the instantly-recognizable stylistic hallmarks of Philly soul surround him.  Female backing vocalists intone the title “Reality” and also echo his bass melody.  A seductive groove percolates, with Renaldo’s strings adding gravity and depth.  The brief solos are tasteful but evocative, and the classy funk-soul of “Reality” sets the tone for the balance of the album.  Think of it as fusion, Philly-style.  Martin (who had already showed off his facility for composing jazzy tracks at PIR such as “I Wish It Were Yesterday” for Billy Paul’s Going East) wrote “Slippin’ and Tippin’,” which puts Montgomery’s bass out front in a delicious and lighthearted dance with both Martin and Feuer on the keys.  Feuer wrote and arranged “Little O’s,” one of the tracks least influenced by the Philly groove.  The tango between Feuer and Montgomery again yields some wonderful interplay.  The only song on Reality penned by Montgomery, “Close Your Face,” shows off some of the hottest bebop licks on the LP.

Two pieces came from outside of both Montgomery and PIR’s respective spheres.  “I Love You Camille” was written by Bill Cosby for his wife and originally recorded by the comedian-actor-renaissance man in 1972.  Montgomery’s recording is graced with subtle string accents from arranger Jack Faith.  Neal Hefti (Batman, The Odd Couple, Frank Sinatra’s Sinatra and Swingin’ Brass) and Bobby Troup’s 1965 “Girl Talk” was already a standard by 1974 when Montgomery – as both leader and arranger – took a stab at it.  The brash, swingin’ movie ode to the “sex we mortal males behold,” introduced in the biopic Harlow, is reinvented at a slower, more ruminative tempo by Montgomery.  He inventively embellishes the seductive melody with apparent effortlessness befitting the breezy tune.

Little could intimidate the heart of the MFSB orchestra; these players could handle every style of music from four-on-the-floor disco and greasy funk to symphonic/classical and most especially, jazz.  So Baker, Young, Kersey, Montana and Washington unsurprisingly show off their chops on a revival of Billy Paul’s chart-topping “Me and Mrs. Jones” as well as “Bump de Bump,” co-written by Martin and the third, otherwise-absent part of the Baker-Harris-Young triumvirate, guitarist Norman Harris.  (Harris’ own style, incidentally, owed a lot to Wes Montgomery.)  This is the track on which the horn section really gets a chance to sizzle, and it may well be the funkiest item on the entire LP.  Though the material on Reality is uniformly strong, it’s not difficult to wish that Martin and Montgomery had enlisted Montana, Kersey, Washington, Baker and Young on the entire album.

Big Break deserves tremendous plaudits for thinking outside the box with this long-overdue reissue.  Sean Brennan at Battery Studios transferred Reality from the original master tapes, with Nick Robbins handling the remastering in London.  Stephen “SPAZ” Schnee’s strong essay contains track-by-track liner notes and also delves into Montgomery’s history.  The single A-side of “Reality,” which edits the track down by roughly two minutes’ length, has been added as a bonus track.  (Its B-side, “Bump de Bump,” isn’t included; the single edit matches the album version’s timing.)

Thanks to BBR’s rediscovery of Reality, it’s clear to see that Monk Montgomery and Philly International truly had a thing going on.

Monk Montgomery, Reality (Philadelphia International LP KZ-33153, 1974 – reissued Big Break CDBBR 0243, 2013) (Amazon U.S. / Amazon U.K.)

  1. Reality
  2. Me and Mrs. Jones
  3. Slippin’ and Tippin’
  4. Bump de Bump
  5. I Love You Camille
  6. Little O’s
  7. Girl Talk
  8. Close Your Face
  9. Reality (Single Version) (from Philadelphia International single ZS8-3357, 1974)

Written by Joe Marchese

September 10, 2013 at 16:06

Posted in Monk Montgomery, News, Reissues, Reviews

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