Welcome to 1988, the CD era! George Michael and Rick Astley ruled the charts, and Kenny G’s Silhouette would go 4x Platinum. Miles Davis was recording the glossy Amandla with the help of writer and bassist Marcus Miller, who had just written and produced the hit “Da Butt” for D.C. go-go group Experience Unlimited (chorus: “she was doin’ the butt”). Wayne Shorter’s Joy Ryder, a synth-filled foray into adult contemporary, was described as “grossly overproduced middle-brow funk”. Jazz wasn’t what it used to be.
Emily Remler, then, might as well have been living in the 50s. The 30 year old Berklee alum was devoted to bebop and swing, her greatest idol the jazz guitar giant Wes Montgomery. “I was so obsessed with Wes Montgomery that I had a picture of him on my wall,” Remler shared in a 1986 interview. “And for two years, I learned a new Wes song every day.” Hence the title of her sixth album East to Wes.
Though the album itself features no Montgomery compositions, East to Wes is largely composed of Remler’s take on other songs. “Daahoud”, from the classic Clifford Brown and Max Roach, starts things off with pep. Marvin Smith on drums provides a hopping rhythm allowing Remler to take off. Hank Jones, who played piano with Cannonball Adderley among many others, works as a melodic counterpoint.
“Snowfall” aptly begins gently and rhythmically before Remler takes things up a notch on acoustic guitar. You can watch her performing the song with her eyes closed, deeply focused. Smith’s drumming accentuates the speed of Remler’s playing while Buster Williams provides the perfect backbone. Remler’s original composition “Ballad From a Music Box”, by contrast, is 7 minutes of mellow, an easy highlight for me. Later in the album, the standard “Softly, As in a Morning Sunrise” gets the centerpiece treatment as the longest track. Remler draws it out nice and easy, waiting at least 4 minutes to really let it rip with the fingering before Hank Jones takes over. Williams even gets a tight solo in.
Emily Remler died just 2 years after the release of East to Wes, a tragic loss for a young musician who was steadily improving. Listening to the album today, it feels like neither a product of the 80s or a bebop-era time capsule, but an ageless testament to Remler’s skill.
Listen to East to Wes here.