The Modern Jazz Quartet may best be remembered for bringing a heightened sense of respectability to jazz – the coattails and gentlemanly demeanor helped bring the music from smoky clubs to concert halls and thus to a wider audience. The concept the MJQ employed – fusing a classical sense of composition to basic jazz improvisation – resulted in a series of records that were packed with effortless swing; it seemed as though no one broke a sweat during the recording process. Although the MJQ achieved a high level of reliability over the course of their long career, it also led some critics to call them pretentious and boring.
This new four CD compilation collects the entire output of the group for the Prestige and Pablo labels and spans several decades. Accompanied by an informative and extensive booklet, the box set effectively bookends the career of one of jazz’s longest running groups. The first disc and a half covers the Prestige years, which captured the early explorations of a group that had several good ideas, but had yet to conceptualize them into a definitive sound.
From the opener, “All The Things You Are,” it is apparent that the quartet – John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Connie Kay – were dedicated to finding novel avenues in even the most well-worn of standards. Jackson emerges as the most gifted improviser, lending an edge to the vibraphone that many weren’t able to achieve. Lewis, on the other hand, wasn’t nearly as interesting an improviser, but brought a keen sense of composition that he interwove with the standards that were the group’s forte early on. Percy Heath on bass and Connie Kay on drums rounded out the quartet. Heath’s full, resonant tone was the perfect choice for the baroque exercises the group explored, and Connie Kay, who replaced a disgruntled Kenny Clarke, was a master at sensitive, musical drum work.
Along with the quartet recordings, a few tracks from a session with a young Sonny Rollins are also included which, given that the format is identical throughout, provides a brief respite from all the piano and vibraphone. These early tracks are fine enough, but it isn’t until the latter two records, Django and Concorde, that the group really found an identity. With “Django” Lewis really came into his own as a composer and the group’s democratic approach enabled them to forge classic compositions. Once they got it together, however, the group departed for Atlantic, where they made their most highly regarded recordings.
A taste of these efforts can be heard on the last half of disc two and disc three, which features live recordings from the eighties from a recently reunited group. Although the set list of both live sets is largely interchangeable and the group shows hints of settling into comfortable grooves, they feature the most interesting compositions from the Atlantic era, from the bouncy blues of “The Cylinder” to the Eastern-tinged “The Jasmine Tree.” These tracks have the feeling of friends reuniting again, and features interesting interplay and counterpoint that few groups ever achieved.
After these live recordings, the MJQ recorded two more studio albums, both of which feature material that is similar to that they had recorded years ago. To be fair, they knew better than to tinker with a formula that worked well, but one misses the probing exploration of the earlier recordings. The focus hear is clearly on composition – at the end of each track you may be wondering if there was any soloing involved, as unobtrusive and integrated as it is. Only “Valeria” from disc four catches the ear as an interesting new idea, a slow Latin tune with several sections that are beautifully unified. The last session, a Basie tribute, features no Basie compositions and mysteriously doesn’t sound remotely like the Count at all, and the liner notes provide little explanation in this regard.
As a whole the set is a satisfying look at the MJQ’s career with a significant portion of the history missing. Although thorough, there is a large degree of monotony pervading these sessions, and this four disc set isn’t likely to inspire anyone to seek out more recordings by the group. While this is a noble effort from Fantasy, it's hardly a definitive look at the MJQ (although it doesn’t claim to be), and the merely curious will probably be satisfied with picking up a couple of the classics from the Atlantic years.
Personnel: Milt Jackson-vibes; John Lewis-piano; Connie Kay, Kenny Clarke-drums; Percy Heath-bass; Sonny