The first thing you notice is the cover. One of the unexpected joys of this journey through my record collection has been the variety of artistic styles represented in the album artwork. Dozens of books have published focusing solely on album artwork, and I could probably write one myself focusing just on this collection.
The twenty-nine records I've written about so far have release dates ranging from 1954 to 1968, and the changing fashion norms over the course of that decade and a half are reflected in the slipcases. There are elegant portraits of Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, staged phots of Nat "King" Cole and Frank Sinatra, and beautiful paintings by various artists.
And then there's this one. The final result could never have been expected ahead of time, but it's easy to imagine how cover designer Acy R. Lehman and photographer Charles Stewart arrived at this image. Lehman is credited with more than 600 album cover designs, and he was the one behind the Velvet Underground's first album, which featured a peelable banana drawn by Andy Warhol. Stewart was also a legend who shot more than 2,000 album covers. His portfolio includes photographs of most of the greatest jazz legends ever to grace a stage. In short, these two knew what they were doing -- even if the cover seems to indicate otherwise.
There are session photos inside the gatefold, but how exactly did they settle on that cover photo? One imagines that the Jimmy Smith and Wes Montgomery were asked to pose for a series of posed and spontaneous photos, but at some point the conversation went like this:
Lehman: Okay, why don't you each pick up your sandwiches?
Smith: Okay, now what?
Lehman: Jimmy, you take a big old bit of yours.
Montgomery: What about me?
Lehman: Hmm. Good question, Wes. Why don't you put your arm through Jimmy's arms...
Montgomery: Like this? Like the first champagne toast at our wedding?
Lehman: Exactly! Now each of you take a bite of your sandwich at the same time.
Stewart: That's a great idea, Acy!
Lehman: How's it look through the lens, Chuck!
Stewart: This is absolute gold, Acy! This album is gonna fly off the shelves!
Whether or not it happened that way, the resulting image seems to be pushing against the album cover norms of the time. It wasn't quite the departure that Miles Davis's Bitches Brew would be a few years later, but it wasn't Billie Holiday wearing peals and a satin dress, either. If that was the goal of the cover, perhaps it was to reflect the similar departure heard in the music on the vinyl within.
The music is electric -- and I mean that literally, not just figuratively. After listening to a progression of pianists from Art Tatum to Duke Ellington to Ahman Jamal, it can be a bit disconcerting to hear Jimmy Smith on the Hammond Organ. Rather than the pure melodic depth of a standard piano, the electronic organ offers a more artificial -- but still pleasing -- companion to Wes Montgomery's electric guitar. Smith's organ provides the backbone of much of the music while Montgomery dances on top with various melodies and a distinctive style of improvisation. He enjoys the quick repetition of short phrases, and more than once he convinces the listener that the record is skipping. (Kids today have no idea.) Only Smith's steady rhythm behind that improvisation spoils the illusion.
Smith also gets his time in the spotlight, with solos ranging from the frenetic to the sublime, and as the two men bounce back and forth in their entwined melodic conversation, its hard not to think about their entwined portrait on the cover. Perhaps that photograph isn't so crazy after all.
Down by the Riverside
James and Wes
13 (Death March)
Baby, It's Cold Outside