Wes Montgomery accomplished something few jazz artists could, as he used the disparate elements of the orchestral string ensemble and small organ combo within a similar balladic approach. While one could contend these concepts may not be as effective as a more conventional configuration, Montgomery made them work to a certain extent. What he could not do was infuse an energy that transcends the ballad approach, making this style of jazz priceless. There's a certain lugubrious restraint that permeates this single CD, originally a two-fer on vinyl, that showcases the guitarist's first recordings with strings, and selections plucked from his most ramped down organ combo featuring Melvin Rhyne. The 12 selections with a 12-piece string ensemble (conducted and arranged by Jimmy Jones) plus woodwinds and his rhythm section cover standards, a lone original, a Miles Davis and a Duke Ellington composition reissued from the 1963 Riverside LP Fusion! There's no forward motion or groove whatsoever, it's all ballads and an emphasis on diffidence, with the strings submerging Montgomery's guitar for the most part. The wintry sparkle of the title cut and intro of "Prelude to a Kiss" brightens the otherwise sleepy mood and does indeed complement Montgomery. Two takes of "God Bless the Child" are weakly interpreted, while the strings clash with the easy swing of the otherwise bop icon "Tune Up." An occasional oboe or clarinet turns jazz ballads chamber-like, but literally smothers the music, and only on "My Romance" and "Somewhere" does honest emotionalism emerge. For the sessions with master organist Rhyne, it's all ballads and no soul-jazz as one might expect, save a sprightly bossa nova take on "Canadian Sunset" and a relaxed swing for Benny Golson's "Whisper Not." There's a slight spooky feeling on "'Round Midnight," where otherwise Montgomery matches the serenity Rhyne evokes on these nine standards taken from three different trio recordings for Riverside in 1959 and 1963. Where Montgomery's more distinctly commercial work would follow these sessions, what this album represents is an easy listening prelude that would shape the guitarist's path, for better or worse depending on your perspective.
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AllMusic Review by Michael G. Nastos