There was, for a pairing of musicians so closely associated with other forms, an irrepressible blues feel to 1961’s Bags Meets Wes, reissued this year as part of the Keepnews Collection. That makes a chance meeting between Milt Jackson (longtime member of the complex, often formal Modern Jazz Quartet) and Wes Montgomery (who was just years away from turning his burgeoning talent into commercial gold on the pop charts) special, indeed.
From the start, on the opener "SKJ" (the initials of Jackson’s wife) and then later on the aptly titled "Blue Roz," Bags Meets Wes sizzles with soulful intellect. We find two brilliant jazz artists — both, to my mind, the best there was at their respective instruments — exploring deeply emotional places.
"If the blues is indeed a language," producer Orrin Keepnews says in the updated liner notes, "it is one in which both these men are fluent."
Not that there aren’t all the signposts you’d expect from an album featuring Jackson and Montgomery — each of whom helped move a previously unheralded instrument into front-line status.
You hear in "Stairway to the Stars" the first romantic inklings of where Montgomery’s career would one day find its sweeping fame: Sounding every bit like his octave-playing hero Django Reinhart, Montgomery gently nudges the whole group through a masterful ballad.
The texture of this once-in-a-lifetime, two-day session is remarkable: Even on straight-jazz tunes like Benny Golson’s "Stablemates" and Montgomery’s own "Jingles," the guitarist’s soft, yet precise thumb-picking meshes perfectly with Jackson’s warm, glowing tone.
A signature line on "Sack O’ Woe" by Sam Jones, perhaps best known for bass work in the Julian "Cannonball" Adderley group, makes for an interesting underpinning of the driving "Sam Sack." (Pianist Wyn Kelly and drummer Philly Joe Jones, both Miles Davis alums, round out the rhythm section.)
But, again and again, Bags Meets Wes returns to the fundamental joys of a blues. Even on "Delilah," a tune by contemporary balladeer Victor Young from the 1949 DeMille film "Samson and Delilah," catches a nice groove.
Unfortunately, Jackson and Montgomery never worked together again.
"Bags" returned to his on-again, off-again association with the MJQ — taking breaks from 1974-1981 and then from 1993 through his passing in ’99. Wes, meanwhile, embarked on a new phase of his career, issuing a series of chart-topping pop-jazz cover tunes (including "Goin’ Out of My Head" and "Windy") and touring incessantly.
Many believe that demanding schedule contributed to his early demise. In June 1968, at just 45, Montgomery died of a sudden heart attack.
This reissue includes four bonus tracks, additional takes on "Stablemates," "Stairway to the Stars," "Jingles" and "Delilah."