There is no doubt that Wes Montgomery still has a powerful grip upon the hearts and minds of jazz guitarists everywhere, even 26 years after his sudden death. Even the mighty George Benson, a supreme stylist all his own, actually tried to become Wes Montgomery — with middling success — at the Hollywood Bowl as part of Jazz at the Bowl’s Guitar Greats program.
One can’t blame him, for Benson was a friend and disciple of Montgomery, and after Montgomery’s death, producer Creed Taylor tried to turn Benson into Montgomery’s successor at A&M Records. To make the link even stronger, Benson actually bought one of Montgomery’s guitars and played it throughout his set.
The result was the strangest George Benson performance in memory, almost a seance — with only one full-length vocal, and an encore at that. There he was, copying Wes’ octave solos note-for-note at times on “Windy,””Goin’ Out of My Head””Caravan,””West Coast Blues,””Tequila” and even “A Day in the Life” (a misfire), while a jumble of local session men and regular Benson sidemen tried to simulate the original Don Sebesky, Oliver Nelson and Johnny Pate charts.
Only when he switched into his own mode on the “Tequila” solo and tunes like “Breezin’ ” and “Got to Be There” did the confident Benson reassert himself.
Lee Ritenour was on hand to eulogize Montgomery as well, but on his own terms , translating Montgomery standards like “Goin’ on to Detroit” and “Boss City” into his carefully structured electric idiom. He got help from drummer Harvey Mason and the suave flute and wailing tenor sax of Ernie Watts.
A sad quirk of fate turned Jazz at the Bowl’s memorial to Wes into a double tribute, for one of the originally booked performers, Joe Pass, died on May 23. Taking Pass’ slot was the veteran Mundell Lowe, who glided through a fluid, low-key, mostly uneventful set.