Wes Montgomery’s unique picking style, utilizing his thumb rather than a pick, served him well through two distinct stages: the largely straight ahead jazz period on Riverside, and later with Verve; and the time spent with Creed Taylor’s CTI label that saw him gain enormous popularity via the jazz pop records that spread his name further afield. He died of a heart attack in 1968. As the 14 tunes assembled for this Best Of collection more than adequately display, the first period was decidedly the more substantial, particularly these Orrin Keepnews produced sessions recorded between 1959 and 1963.
The organ/guitar/drum trio format is particularly enthralling, as evidenced by the opening take on Barry Harris’ "Lolita." Organist Melvin Rhyne and drummer George Brown join the guitarist on this 1963 set and set the pace nicely for all that follows. Rhyne was an overlooked master, who was the ideal accompanist to Montgomery. "Yesterday," on which Rhyne and Montgomery are joined by drummer Paul Parker, showcases Wes playing at his spellbinding best. His inventive phrasing is dazzling on single line and chordal playing.
"Delilah" finds him joined by Milt Jackson, a co-leader on the set, as well as pianist Wynton Kelly and the rhythm team par excellence of Sam Jones and Philly Joe Jones. "Polka Dots and Moonbeams," with Tommy Flanagan, Percy Heath and Tootie Heath on board, is lyrical and captivating, and "Double Deal," on which he is joined by brothers Buddy (vibes) and Monk (bass), drummer Walter Perkins, and the great George Shearing, is nearly its equal. The interplay between guitar and vibes is superb and Shearing’s solo is a treasure.
The ever popular "Body and Soul" is given an almost dark reading, with Wes in the lower register in what sounds like an odd choice of key. Fortunately, "Delirium" more than makes up for it with its up-tempo gallop. Drummer Bobby Thomas is explosive, and with brothers Buddy (this time on very impressive piano) and Monk on hand, Wes flies brilliantly through the changes. His total command of the fret board makes for some of the best playing on the collection. "Besame Mucho," with Rhyne and drummer Jimmy Cobb is played with a delightful rhythm over which Montgomery picks impressive single lines that give way to his signature chording. "One For My Baby (And One More For the Road)" sees Montgomery share the studio with Hank Jones, Ron Carter and Lex Humphries. Throughout his career the guitar giant certainly did play with his share of great players. As impressive as these are, the tune sounds more like a cut from the soundtrack of "Honk," the classic surf film, than a jazz date. Being a fan of surf music that’s not a knock.
For his version of Miles Davis’ "Tune Up," Montgomery enlists a string section, Phil Bodner on various woodwinds, pianist Dick Hyman, bassist Milt Hinton, drummer Osie Johnson and the great Kenny Burrell sitting in on rhythm guitar. The following "Four On Six," with Flanagan and the Heath brothers, is rhythmic and captivating and allows everyone room to stretch. "Groove Yard," with the Montgomery brothers and Bobby Thomas, is well paced and beautifully played by all involved and again showcases the maestro’s chops in an enchanting setting. The live "Full House," with tenorist Johnny Griffin sharing the front line and Wynton Kelly, Paul Chambers and the busy Jimmy Cobb in supporting roles, is one of the most impressive pieces on the disc for Montgomery’s playing. Though the horn sounds somewhat out of place, Griffin obviously served as inspiration for Wes to reach higher. Kelly’s solo is a highlight, as well. The closing ballad, "Stairway To The Stars," with Jackson, Kelly, Jones and Jones, is lushly romantic and serves as a beautiful way to close a wonderful collection.