In 1961, Wes Montgomery was the hottest new guitarist in jazz and Milt “Bags” Jackson was already a legend on the vibes, in part to due to his work in the Modern Jazz Quartet. These two powerful forces met on this enjoyable album and were joined by an all-star rhythm section comprised of talented musicians who had worked with the likes of Dizzy, Miles, and Cannonball. They are pianist Wynton Kelly, bassist Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones, whose skills on the drums almost steal the spotlight.
The blues heavily influenced the styles of both Bags and Wes and this is evident from the first track “S.K.J.,” a Jackson-penned tune named after the initials of his wife. Wes also contributes a blues tune, “Blue Roz.” The song starts with a “call and respond” started by Wes and Bags playing a little something together followed by the rest of the band. Then the band plays together as Bags, followed by Wes, and then Wynton, exchange the lead. The “call and respond” is reprised at the end. The blues is also at the forefront of their rendition of “Stairway To The Stars.”
Most of the songs on this album have a similar structure with the group playing together at the start. Followed by Bags and Wes taking turns leading the number. They drop off and let the rhythm section play. A prime example is Bags’ “Sam Sack,” a rollickin’ jam that is more R&B than jazz. After the opening, Bags leads the song then stops while the rest of the band continues. Wes does the same thing, followed by the piano and bass stopping, allowing Philly Joe to solo on the drums. The piano comes back along with the bass, at which point Sam takes the lead. Before the tune ends, Bags and Wes join back in.
The album contains three alternate tracks and each piece follows the released versions, so the listener can hear the changes made and what a difference they make. On the transition from take 6, the released version, to take 2 of “Stairway To The Stars” some of the rhythm section playing is cut, including a piano solo. On “Jingles,” the longest piece on the album, clocking in at less than seven minutes, everyone really gets to cut loose and swing on their solos. Wes found the opening ensemble part weak on take 8, so he had them rerecord the track and was satisfied with take 9. The most dramatic change of a song is on the final track, “Delilah,” where the drum solo from take 3 was cut, and I might be mistaken, but it sounded like Jones was playing the drums with his hands.
Bags Meets Wes! is a phenomenal set of tracks recorded by a talented group of artists who push each other to greatness. It’s a great album for parties, but is better appreciated when you listen and focus on each man’s contributions.