While it is undoubtedly true that more than a few fans came to Wes Montgomery through his unabashed pop oriented recordings like “California Dreaming” and his best selling jazz take on the Beatles, “A Day in the Life” (both of which lie in a box in one of my closets), it is also true that he had more than demonstrated his classical jazz chops well before those albums. The recordings prior to the late-’60s might not have had the same popular success, but artistically, it was another story. Indeed, for many jazz purists at the time, it was the earlier Montgomery that was the great Montgomery, and the guy covering the Beatles something of a sellout.
Opinions change and the later work has justifiably gained in reputation over the years, but not at the expense of the earlier work. There are very few who do not acknowledge the excellence of that early work, and the new collection of some of that work in The Very Best of Wes Montgomery demonstrates why. Drawn from eight albums the guitarist recorded on the Riverside label from 1959 through 1963, it offers a sampling of Montgomery’s playing that more than likely would have established his all-star credentials had he never come near the Mamas and the Papas.
The earliest tune on the new release is a 1959 recording of Monk’s “‘Round Midnight” from The Wes Montgomery Trio. Montgomery combines with organist Melvin Rhyme and drummer Paul Parker for a soulful take on the classic. The latest are the ’63 Latino beat recordings of “Besame Mucho” and a very original “Canadian Sunset” from Boss Guitar. Again he is joined by Rhyme on the Hammond B-3 while Jimmy Cobb takes over the drums. Both show the guitarist at the top of his game.
Between those, there are eight more selections culled from the remainder of his Riverside catalogue. There is a sweet collaboration with vibraphonist Milt Jackson on “Delilah” from Bags Meets Wes! and a swinging version of Montgomery’s own composition “Four on Six” from The Incredible Jazz Guitar of Wes Montgomery. Also from that album is a dynamic take on the classic “Gone With the Wind” and an impressive excursion into “West Coast Blues,” another Montgomery original. Tommy Flanagan plays piano on both; bassist Percy Heath and drummer Albert “Tootie” Heath round out the quartet.
There is an interesting take on Clifford Brown’s “Sandu” where he is joined at the start by the wispy flute of James Clay and offers a nice bass solo from Sam Jones. “I’m Just a Lucky So and So” is a classic swinger, and the album closes with a live performance of the guitarist’s “Cariba” from Full House. It is an Afro-Cuban romp that gives everyone in the ensemble—Johnny Griffen (tenor sax), Wynton Kelly (piano), Paul Chambers (bass), Jimmy Cobb (drums)—a shot at the spotlight. It’s the kind of exciting jam that ends the album on a high note.
The Very Best of Wes Montgomery may be somewhat limited in its scope. Certainly there will be those that object to the idea of a “very best” that doesn’t include some of the guitarist’s most popular work, but the objection can really only be about the title, not the content. There may be more performances deserving of the title “very best,” but that’s not to say that anything on this disc is unworthy and needs to be replaced.