This group’s decision to takes it’s name from the president perceived by many as one of the most progressive in the history of the United States was a carefully conceived reflection of the members’ unified vision. Capitalizing on a serious desire to bridge past traditions with the adventurous excursions favored by the then avant-garde these five players used their debut to demonstrate to the jazz listening public that their music was not without a light-hearted side too. A glance at some of the composition titles verifies their appreciation for the soulful sides of Southern culture. “Aw-Ite” strikes a jocular opening groove with a rolling boogaloo drum pattern and unison horn statements from Codrington and White. “Hominy Grits” continues along a similar course and suggests the overt influence of the disc’s producer, “Cannonball” Adderly, on the Quintet’s approach. The majority of compositions are taken at medium or up-tempo paces with the lone exception being a lilting version of the old ballad “Polka Dots.” The song’s inclusion is a wise one because it effectively illustrates the group’s abilities on slower, more ruminative numbers alongside the brisker clip of the faster pieces.
White’s sound on alto is a curious amalgam of traditional elements and the keening, crying tones favored by one of his prime influences, Ornette Coleman, which he employs to great effect during his solo on “Grits.” Codrington’s brass work is more staunchly rooted in the mainstream, but both players confess an obvious infatuation with the blues that comes through in their numerous and spirited exchanges. Both men also share the compositional duties authoring all tunes save the two standards included for good measure.
Carrying through on their belief in consensus of vision and application, White and Codrington open up an unusual amount of space for the rhythm section. Killgo’s keys are the most frequent solo voice behind the horns, but Booker and Newman also have their moments in the spotlight as a result of the egalitarian arrangements. The result is a refreshingly different alternative to the traditional leader/sidemen dynamics that had long been a mainstream jazz convention. Three out of the five players are now largely forgotten with only White and Booker moving beyond a provincial status through stints with other groups. Judged by today’s standards of what is avant-garde the JFK Quintet is unavoidably tame by comparison. But given the era they were operating in their embrace of freer forms of ensemble interaction is as admirable as it is enjoyable to listen to. This is the avant-garde jazz at its most accessible and should be visited by anyone with an ear open to sounds new and exciting.