All eight of the albums Wes Montgomery issued on Verve in the mid-'60s (including the two he did with organist Jimmy Smith) are on this limited-edition, five-CD box set. With the addition of 20 bonus tracks (none previously unreleased, some of them alternate takes or overdubbed versions) and a 76-page booklet that includes readable reproductions of the original LP sleeves, it's the definitive compilation of his work for the label. By its very size, of course, its appeal might be limited to completists and serious collectors. But its no-stone-unturned thoroughness can't be faulted, and it sensitively separates the purest straight-ahead jazz material (all of the cuts recorded in 1965 for Smokin' at the Half Note
) onto one CD, as well as placing the Montgomery-Smith albums so that they're heard in succession on the last half of disc four and the first half of disc five.
Montgomery's Verve period is the source of some contention among critics and fans. Numerous jazz authorities are of the opinion that Wes by far did his finest work when he operated with standard, straight-ahead small jazz groups early in his recording career, and declined substantially when he moved to Verve, primarily owing to increasingly commercial material and orchestrated arrangements. Most listeners with some open-mindedness, however, will find at least some material here to value -- not just the all-out straight jazz sessions on Smokin' at the Half Note
, but also on the cuts with more pop-oriented backing. First, it should be pointed out that the pop and rock covers for which Montgomery's Verve releases are most often derided -- particularly "Goin' Out of My Head" and "California Dreaming" -- are a fairly small minority of the songs he recorded for the label. Of more importance, the combination of Montgomery's always excellent guitar playing with orchestrated arrangements (variously by Johnny Pate
, Don Sebesky
, Oliver Nelson
, and Claus Ogerman
) actually works well much of the time. At its best, the blend achieves a cinematic sense of drama, as well as a form of jazz that many more pop-oriented listeners will find more accessible than much of conventional jazz.
That also means, of course, that a good number of jazz specialists will find that material unpalatable, and there are some tracks where the embellishments verge upon becoming too sweet and middle of the road. But there are at least as many such cuts that even jazzheads should enjoy, both for Montgomery's playing and the effective, and at times adventurous addition of big-band elements. Quite a few tracks, in fact, are downright excellent. Standouts include the Montgomery-Smith recording "13 (Death March)"; the superb soul-jazz of another Montgomery-Smith highlight, "O.G.D. (aka Road Song)"; the simmering groove of "Bumpin' on Sunset"; or the unfettered, bluesy strut "Just Walkin'." Ultimately, Montgomery's Verve output must be considered more a success than a failure, and more worthy than embarrassing. And while his shifting approaches ensures that almost everyone will find this box an inconsistent listen, it's ultimately quite a worthy collection of a notable period in his career.