Richie Crabtree

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Pianist Richie Crabtree hails from the wilds of Montana, and first popped up on the jazz scene in the company of the Montgomery Brothers, a musical family originating in the Indianapolis urban sprawl.…
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Pianist Richie Crabtree hails from the wilds of Montana, and first popped up on the jazz scene in the company of the Montgomery Brothers, a musical family originating in the Indianapolis urban sprawl. Crabtree's short recording career seems to have taken place between the late '50s and early '60s, largely as a member of a quartet called the Mastersounds. This group -- which duped the Modern Jazz Quartet's popular instrumentation of piano, vibes, bass, and drums, but not its style -- was an even mix of Montgomery siblings and others. Monk Montgomery played bass, Buddy Montgomery literally established the good vibes, and Crabtree took rhythmic cues from drummer Benny Barth.

Sometimes the Montgomery quotient was topped off with the addition of the family's most illustrious member, the great guitarist Wes Montgomery. While the career of the Mastersounds combo intertwines with the guitarist's early establishing years, the former was much more the project of brothers Buddy and Monk Montgomery, looking for a way of making the intricate inventions of bebop more appealing to easy listening and pop listeners. In 1957 the group was gigging in San Francisco and landed a contract with the World Pacific label. Two albums later, label honcho Dick Bock decided to follow the Montgomery brothers back to their hometown to check out the guitarist brother they had been bragging about. (The resulting recordings were also the debut on vinyl for a 19-year-old Freddie Hubbard.)

The Montgomery brothers had picked a good accomplice in Crabtree, a serious devotee of the founding fathers of bebop who was not about to slouch on the harmonic contribution. Little seems to have been written about Crabtree since 1961, a point where discographers place his last recording session. He made it into Leonard Feather's Encyclopedia of Jazz, probably because it was originally published just the year before. The Mastersounds group was at the height of its popularity in 1960, so naturally this was also the year the group decided to break up.

The music of the Mastersounds seems to have been rediscovered in time for the new millennium, complete with reissue collections and a comfortable tie-in with newly minted styles such as acid jazz and smooth jazz. Perhaps a belated study of Crabtree's musical growth will result but unfortunately one of the only articles where the pianist's name is mentioned is in the online ravings of a racist attempting to establish white supremacy in the world of jazz. In this sleazy context, Crabtree is mentioned as a student of Freddie Saatman, a legendary piano virtuoso who was purported to be a Nazi collaborator. Crabtree is furthermore described as an expert on the music of Arnold Schoenberg -- his relationship with the Montgomery clan is not mentioned.

Perhaps Crabtree is the missing link between Schoenberg's 12-tone school and Wes Montgomery's unique octave-doubling picking technique, at times approximating the sound of a 12-string guitar.