Modern Jazz Quartet: Four Dapper Dans Who Weren't Button Down
Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige & Pablo Recordings
Dave Brubeck and Paul Desmond were busy trading in the irregular time signatures that made their album’s staples in college student jazz collections the country over. Chico Hamilton had the lock on chamber jazz popularity on the West Coast with his piano-less quintet and a string of popular records for Pacific Jazz. Fertile Third Stream experiments were propagating on both shores through the work of genre-straddling composers like Gunther Schuller and Jimmy Giuffre. But arguably more than any other working band, the Modern Jazz Quartet was the chief flag bearer of chamber jazz. They also had the benefit of longevity, sustaining a career that spanned five decades and allowed for plenty of successful solo ventures along the way.
The MJQ’s style of African American music effectively drew in listeners outside the usual jazz orbits. Their cross-cultural appeal supplied ammunition to detractors and cynics who claimed their sounds were sugarcoated and orderly to the point of banality. Any close attention to the music in context reveals a different reality altogether. The MJQ’s brand of classical tinged small ensemble jazz carried the trappings of recital hall formality and precision. But the four could also be considered subversive wolves cloaked in sheep’s clothing. Along with more obvious elements of elegance and erudition, they brought a splash of the ribald flavor of speakeasy blues with them. They may have dressed to the nines in gray flannels, suspenders and spats, but the band was still a far cry from the starched collar suits of the typical symphonic string quartet.
Recordings for Prestige and Pablo bookend the MJQ’s lengthy middle tenure at Atlantic. Together they present a telling before and after picture by beginning with the band’s bop origins and charting a logical evolution. Fantasy’s sumptuous package collects all extant recordings from these early and late periods in a sturdy cardboard slipcase embossed with simple, but stately graphics. An accompanying booklet is ripe with historic photos and contains illuminating essays by Eugene Holley and Chris Sheridan, along with color facsimiles of the original album covers.
The real selling point here though is the music, four disc’s crammed to the gills with a total of 54 tracks, starting with the earliest incarnation of the MJQ and the redoubtable Kenny “Klook” Clarke perched on drum stool. The band had its origins in the partnership of Milt Jackson and John Lewis, who had met as members of Dizzy Gillespie’s late 1940s orchestra. Recognizing their kindred musical souls, the two men set about trying out different ensembles under Jackson’s leadership until signing with Prestige and adopting the now famous acronym. Disc one includes material from four albums. The first session shows the core three already fitting into what would become their formal roles: Lewis as principal composer, Jackson as primary soloist and Heath as harmonic anchor. Clarke’s forceful bop-heavy drumming makes for a bold contrast with entrance of Kay’s more expansive sticks on “Ralph’s New Blues,” at the close of disc.
For their third Prestige session the MJQ teamed up with one of the labels most influential tenor men, Sonny Rollins. The results of the meeting are predictably more overtly bop-oriented, but that’s where the obviousness ends. The MJQ would record with other guest stars over the years, Paul Desmond among them, but this early conclave with Rollins really is something special. Rollins pushes the four through his restless improvisations and they in turn coax him into leavening his knife-edged tone to a degree. What might’ve been an oil and water blend ends up mixing like a finely stirred gin and tonic. The winsome meeting of the minds is immediately noticeable on “In a Sentimental Mood” where the tenor’s romance-rich tone floats contemplatively against the lush support of Jackson’s lambent vibes and Clarke’s calming brushwork. Rollins’ more playful side comes out on “The Stopper” as he negotiates a melodic obstacle course set up by Jackson’s punctuating mallets and Heath’s fast break bass line. “Almost Like Being in Love” affords Clarke the space to engage in his signature brand of press roll breaks, lighting a fire under the saxophonist and sparking some spirited exchanges.
The entire album Django and portions of Concorde are also covered on disc one. It’s these two records that really cemented the MJQ’s status and mystique and virtually every composition would become calling cards for the group. The sectional “La Ronde Suite” is a standout piece. Cloven into four episodes, one for each MJQ instrument, it’s a convenient and instructive source to hear each man at the forefront. It also highlights how at odds Clarke’s style of drumming could be with the band’s more even-tempered classicist leanings. Klook’s mighty press rolls, which erupt during his segment of the suite are undeniably exciting, but still seem slightly out of place in relation to his partners’ own contributions.
The first four tracks on disc two finish out the Prestige portion of the set and a temporal transition of 25 years transpires in the two versions of “Softly as In a Morning Sunrise” programmed back to back. The first is from Rudy Van Gelder’s Hackensack studio, the second taped in from of an adoring audience in Tokyo, Japan. Differences between the two renderings of the tune demonstrate the levels to which the MJQ achieved a reparatory synergy in their interplay in the intervening years. Instead of resulting in a stale stasis, their countless miles on the road shaped a band totally in touch with its own direction and devices and they sound completely in their element under the concert hall lights in front of the Japanese fans. The Hackensack take is fairly straight, steeped in the blues, but with few surprises in terms of content or trajectory, while the Tokyo version has a blithe luminosity and breeziness that sounds more suited to the mantle of elegance they had earned.
The remainder of the latter date finds the band cycling through compositions originally recorded for other labels including Blue Note and Atlantic. Lewis’ brightly voiced, stride-referential “The Golden Striker” and cerulean-laced “Odds Against Tomorrow,” from a 1955 film soundtrack of the same name are highlights. Gliding sections of warm counterpoint infuse the former, while the latter builds from a slower, more somber series of tones in the service of a haunting theme that later split off into a sunnier melody. The composer’s spoken introductions also preface several of the pieces and illustrate the rapport they usually enjoyed with their audiences. Another instructive transition closes the disc out as versions of “Django” are juxtaposed, the second from a Montreux date nine months later that finds the quartet in a decidedly more sedate mood, but without sacrificing any swing.
Disc Three presents the remainder of the Montreux date along with four studio pieces culled from the band’s 1984 reunion album (a marketing gimmick that they would return to more than once) that debuts some new tunes into the songbook. The Swiss set list covers a lot of the same compositional ground as its Japanese predecessor, but its here where the MJQ prove their prowess as an improvisatory jazz unit by making subtle changes in solo order, voicing and structure to create a fresh performance. Kay’s chiming bells sustain the tempo on “The Jasmine Tree” allowing for a detailed exploration by Lewis of the vaguely Old World-sounding theme.
The Swiss rendering of “Odds Against Tomorrow” shaves off even more of the noirish sentiment and eventually finds the band in a downright effusive mood. On “The Martyr,” a ballad piece rarity in MJQ set lists, Kay’s various percussion effects take center stage alongside Jackson’s stately mallet work and Lewis’ simple romantic chording. Heath plays with consummate economy, articulating each throbbing note with graceful precision and the question naturally arises, why wasn’t this tune a regular staple of the repertoire?
The band’s Together Again reunion album takes up the remainder of the third disc and spills over into the first two tracks of disc four. “Echoes” opens with the dark of Lewis’ piano contrasting the light of Jackson’s vibes atop a sparse support of single bass notes and brushed snare drum. Topically prescient, Heath’s “Watergate Blues” moves on a grooving bass line and its thrill to hear the fat swinging punch of his strings leading the action for once. “The Hornpipe” has echoes of old time parlor swing and allows Heath additional space up front along with some unexpectedly martial stick work from Kay that adds highly effective rhythmic tension. Jackson also muscles his own share of the tune for a typically measured display of interlocking mallet lines. The Kay focus carries over into “Connie’s Blues,” a piece that strangely enough doesn’t feature the drummer much behind a time-keeping capacity and is marred in places by an odd echo trailing Jackson’s instrument.
The fourth and final disc is dominated by the MJQ’s final Pablo session from the summer of 1985. But first are the two concluding pieces from the previous session. “Sacha’s March” recalls a nursery rhyme-like simplicity and serves as a feature for Kay’s pliant percussion. Lewis also solos in the tune’s latter half showing an economy of expression that leaves the piece feeling somewhat lightweight and transitory. “That Slavic Blues,” written by Lewis’ in reference to his wife’s heritage, opens with a delicate unison line by Jackson and Heath, laced by the composer’s single note accents. There’s a ballad feel to the melody, but also an undercurrent of somber sensitivity that envelops from the onset.
Chris Sheridan’s liners make note of difficulties experienced by the MJQ at their last Pablo studio date, but the program carries very little evidence, testimony once again to the band’s perfectionist impulses. Jackson’s “Reunion Blues” gets things off the ground with a billowy expansive ensemble opening flanked by Kay’s crisp cymbal time keeping. Lewis’ angular stabbing of his ivories almost recalls Monk or perhaps more accurately Waldron in its oblique patterning and it’s a pleasure to hear him step of his usual frugal mode. “D and E,” another blues, this time 24-bars in cast, stretches out even further with Heath’s corpulent, but agile lines earning the focus of attention. His call and response conversation with his partners on the breaks demonstrates a purity of tone that few bassists are ever able to achieve.
Ellington’s “Rockin’ in Rhythm” and the “Le Cannet,” a piece based on the prefatory note progression of “Milestones,” are each afforded elegant interpretations, but the pinnacle of the session is quite probably Jackson’s largely solitary rendering of “Nature Boy.” Both his mallets are a model of measured grace and trance-inducing tonality as he works his pedals to craft a shimmering halo of sonic light around the notes loosed by the impact of felt on metal. Lewis opts for solo honors of his own on a beautifully realized take of “Milano,” but the effects aren’t quite as uniformly bewitching as those of his band mate.
The MJQ’s recording career post-Pablo would prove comparatively brief, owing to the successive passing of each of the members save Heath. Even so, they left a deep reservoir in their wake in the form of hours upon hours of music, a large portion of which is represented by this box. There are still those who denounce the group as lasting evidence of modern jazz music’s intellectual and elitist tendencies. Those folks aren’t likely to be swayed in opinion by the Prestige and Pablo output. Less reactionary listeners however, are almost certain to uncover a wealth of material to enjoy and be enlightened by. The gilded candy wrapper the package comes in is but one indication that its cover can safely judge the quality of this particular ‘book’.
Tracks: Disc One: All the Things You Are/ La Ronde/ Vendome/ Rose of the Rio Grande/ The Queen’s Fancy/ Delaunay’s Dilemma/ Autumn in New York/ But Not For Me/ In a Sentimental Mood/ The Stopper/ Almost Like Being in Love/ No Moe/ Django/ One Bass Hit/ Milano/ La Ronde Suite/ Ralph’s New Blues/ All of You. Disc Two: I’ll Remember April/ Gershwin Medley: Soon-For You, For Me, For Evermore-Love Walked In-Love is Here to Say/ Concorde/ Softly As in a Morning Sunrise (2 versions)/ The Cylinder/ Really True Blues/ The Golden Striker/ Odds Against Tomorrow/ The Jasmine Tree/ Bag’s Groove/ Django (2 versions). Disc Three: The Jasmine Tree/ Odds Against Tomorrow/ The Cylinder/ The Martyr/ Really True Blues/ Monterey Mist/ Bag’s New Groove/ Woody’N You/ Echoes/ The Watergate Blues/ The Hornpipe/ Connie’s Blues. Disc Four: Sacha’s March/ That Slavic Smile/ Reunion Blues/ D and E (take 5)/ Rockin’ in Rhythm (take 16)/ Valeria le Cannet/ Nature Boy/ Milano/ Topsy/ D and E (re-take 1).
Players: Milt Jackson- vibraphone; John Lewis- piano; Percy Heath- bass; Connie Kay- drums; Kenny Clarke- drums; Sonny Rollins- tenor saxophone. Various dates and locations 1952-1985.