Wes Montgomery's Solo on: "Snowfall"(Claude Thornhill)
heard Claude Thornhill's "Snowfall" on a Wes
Montgomery LP titled, "THE MONTGOMERY BROTHERS
IN CANADA"(Fantasy) and the record was so old that
the vinyl is a rare blue color! I loved this tune so much
that I wanted to learn just where it had come from, but
somehow I always got distracted and never did the proper
research. During my years with Columbia Records, when
they were most generous with giving LPs to their artists,
I was given a copy of "THE MEMORABLE CLAUDE THORNHILL"(Columbia)
and this was the first time I was able to hear what I
assumed to be the "original" version of "Snowfall." I
had no idea that his wife, Ruth, had later put lyrics
to it and that there existed vocal versions of it as well.
Though I'm no expert in that area, the recent Tony
Bennett version, from his Christmas CD titled, "THE
CHRISTMAS ALBUM: SNOWFALL"(Columbia) is really wonderful
and captures everything that's so special about this moody
and enigmatic piece of music. In truth, I don't really
know just how much of the arrangement by the Montgomery
Bros. is Buddy Montgomery's or Wes'(or a collaboration
between them) because it's really not indicated anywhere.
I would have to venture a guess that they collaborated
on it. I do know that they took a tune, originally written
in 4/4, and converted it into something very special in
Essentially, I really don't do transcriptions anymore. However, sometimes a student comes to me with a problem, or a request, and I end-up helping them out as best as I can. People, who are fans of Wes, often write me and ask if I have "extra" transcriptions laying around. Those which are not contained in my book, "THE WES MONTGOMERY GUITAR FOLIO," and the answer is invariably, "No!" However, recently, I received a letter from a fan in Canada who wanted to know if I had a transcription of Wes' solo on "Snowfall." I answered that I didn't and gave him some basic information about the tune itself, and Wes' version. It somehow inspired me to go back to the CD, "GROOVE BROTHERS"(Milestone) and reinvestigate the solo because, to be honest, I didn't really remember much about it specifically. Once I heard it and realized that it was only one full chorus, and that it didn't sound impossible to write out, I decided to just go ahead and do it, do the transcription. The results of that work, I am sharing with you all now.
"Snowfall" is a standard A-A-B-A form, but the version by Wes and his brothers: Buddy, here on vibes(usually a pianist), and Monk, on acoustic bass, offers a unique approach. As I stated earlier, the tune, as composed by Claude Thornhill, is written in 4/4, but the Montgomery Brothers interpret it in 6/4 with an underlying bass ostinato which emphasizes the note Db, the fifth of the key. At bar 5 of [I] when Wes and Buddy enter with Wes playing a basic, root position, Gbmaj7(#4) voicing with 'C' on top, you'll notice that Buddy's voicing has an Ab on top. Vibes and guitar have a history of working well together because the guitar adds a certain body to the sometimes cold, metallic texture of the vibes; and vibes can add the clustering element to the voicings of the guitar. With some time and care spent on any arrangement, beautiful things can be done to fill out certain block chord passages. All the letter [A] sections of "Snowfall" offer any vibes-guitar tandem such an opportunity. Here again, I think it's important to mention that, if you fall in love with this tune, please make the effort go back and hear Claude Thornhill's original big band version. But, it's equally important to hear Tony Bennett's gorgeous vocal version. You really need to understand and feel the melody because it can only help you in appreciating what Wes and Buddy were doing here. And more than this, to perhaps interpret this tune yourself!
At times, with their voicings, they seem to criss-cross the melodic responsibilities. One moment the vibes have the melodic note on top, and the next, Wes' guitar presents the melody note on top. Wes' voicings are really quite simple, but they are, at times, masked because of the blend with the vibes and Buddy's voicings. In the end, that's exactly what you'd hope to achieve, a "oneness" of sound. Wes even uses one of the guitar's most awful voicings, that of a major 7th chord with the root on top. You can see it in bars 2 and 5 of each [A] section. Here, because of the blend with the vibes, it doesn't sound so bad. However, if you play it by itself, I believe you'll see what I mean. The first bar is especially interesting, where the melody is concerned, because Wes' first voicing has a Bb on top, while Buddy's voicing, which contains the actual melody note, has the Db on top. Wes is also using the sophisticated device of playing what we guitarists might call a Db7(9, 13) voicing, with the Bb on top. Using a voicing of the V7 chord(in the key of Gb major, that is Db7) is a device which can sound great when placed in just the right spot. In bar 3 of each [A] section, when the 4th(Cb) is on top of the Gbm6, Wes applies a voicing we might see as a Cb7(9) voicing more than associating it with a m7 sound. Here, it's a nice touch.
In each letter [A] of the melody statement, their arrangement adds three extra beats to the 6th bar, which I chose to write out as a 9/4 bar(though you could certainly do it as one 6/4 bar and then one 3/4 bar. I believe that they did this for the simple reason that it "felt right" to them. When the solo choruses are played, all 8 bars of each letter [A] are in 6/4, no extra beats! To me this makes perfect sense because one does not have to stay married to exact presentation of anything contained in the melody. For a long, long time this was part of the "jazz tradition," but in time things loosened up and became far less rigid. In letter [B], when Monk walks on bass, I wrote out this section as 16 bars of 3/4. Where the statement of the melody is concerned, this section is the most perplexing because Wes plays nothing near what the written melody looks like. It almost sounds as though he made up his "own" melody. The original melody is simply one bar with two half-notes and then one bar with a whole note. They alternate for the 8 bar section. What could be more simple?
Before we discuss the solo itself, I should address just how the Wes and his brothers decided to construct their own "solo changes" for the letter [A] sections and not make themselves 'prisoners' of how they chose to treat the melodic harmony. In treating the melody in bars 6-7, they played, in dotted half-notes, Cmaj7(w/ 'E' on top); Dmaj7(6)(w/ C# on top); and Db7(b9)(w/ Eb on top); before resolving back to Gbmaj7(w/ Db on top). For the soloing, in bar 6, they play Ab7(13)/Eb; and then in bar 7, they play G7(13)/D(which could be seen as a b5 substitute for any Db7(alt.) chord) before resolving back to Gbmaj7. I suppose to some this descending harmony might be a bit reminiscent of a portion of the changes to "On Green Dolphin St." With this detail more clearly in focus, let's look at Wes' wonderful solo.
As he so often does, Wes begins with his own small thematic device, this time repeated quarter notes. A phrase which he answers himself in bar 2 while leaving a long breath and lots of space. Essentially, one could say that he's simply playing two bars in Gb major(sometimes using the Lydian mode, when you see/hear a C-natural); and two bars in Gb minor, using the Gb Dorian mode. He always treats bar 6, the Ab7(13)/Eb chord, by alluding to the Eb Dorian mode. Bar 7 is treated the same way, just one half-step down. In both bars, you can see how, in part, he outlines either an Ebm triad, or a Dm triad. And, what he plays in bar 6, he then thematically echoes in bar 7. You can certainly view this in both [A] and [A2].
When Wes arrives at letter [B], and Monk begins to walk on bass, he again states a "call and response" type of phrase. Very lyrical, very melodic. Then, suddenly, he's off on a series of 8th-note triplets which only taper off as the section ends. What is remarkable about this 12-bar passage is that he never plays any chromatic notes. It's all strictly diatonic. There are no alterations thrown in as C7 resolves to Fmaj7, nor when Ab7 resolves to Dbmaj7. This, I would say, is highly unusual for someone of Wes' harmonic sophistication. However, it does not, for a moment, diminish the melodic beauty of his improvisation, nor the difficulty in executing such passages. He had obviously done lots of practicing and homework!!!
As he arrives at [A3], Wes leans a little harder on the Lydian sound by placing an emphasis on the C-natural. Again, the Lydian sound of Gbmaj7(#4) was introduced in this arrangement in letter [I] by Wes' guitar voicing. So, it is not as if this modal sound appears out of nowhere! Wes is also never too far from his blues sensibilities, and you can hear this as bar 4 travels into bar 5, and even during the last bar of the solo. Where transcribing this solo was concerned the only "trouble spot" for me came in bar 7 of [A3] because the phrasing just became uncharacteristically blurred. So, to make certain that I was close to being "correct," I contacted my friend and colleague, Ethan Gutzeit, who possesses the technology to really isolate the pitches. It's an interesting little passage because I'm not certain that Wes really fully intended to play it in exactly this manner. I say this because of the presence of the Bbs in that bar. I don't believe that they are there as "blue notes" because in those same bars in the prior [A] sections, you do not see a Bb, and for that matter, you do not even see B-natural. It just sounds a bit curious to me. On the other hand, it's just prior to resolving to Gbmaj7, and of course Bb is the 3rd of the chord. But again, it's an improvisation and by its nature, it's not supposed to be perfect.
As always, it's my hope that you will enjoy hearing this beautiful tune by Claude Thornhill and this solo performed by the great Wes Montgomery. I know that this gives KHAN'S KORNER a wonderful 'lift-off' into the new year of 2002. This marks the 3rd year for our website and Blaine and I would like to thank everyone for their visits, their wonderful e-mails, and Guestbook entries. We greatly appreciate all of you! Thank you!!!