For nearly half a century, the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) endured as one of the most well-renowned ensembles in jazz. The original MJQ came together in 1946 as the rhythm section in Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra: Milt Jackson on vibes and John Lewis on piano, as well as bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clarke. Brown and Clarke were replaced early on by Percy Heath and Connie Kay, respectively, but Lewis and Jackson would remain mainstays of the MJQ all the way up to its final recordings in the early '90s. This release features that updated lineup in performance from the Monterey Jazz Festival held in the summer of 1963. Previously released on CD as In a Crowd, this set offers seven selections fans of the MJQ will no doubt recognize and enjoy, just under 40 minutes of the straight-ahead magic that made the group last so long.
What elevates the MJQ above and beyond classification as your typical bop ensemble are the skills of Jackson. His playing lends a sexy, almost otherworldly quality to the proceedings. Much to the audience's delight, the group conducts a fine reading of his signature tune "Bag's Groove," the mid-tempo take standing out as one of the highlights of the set. Jackson is again featured on the standard "Mean to Me," which starts out as a ballad, but quickly picks up steam and morphs into an up-tempo swing session.
The MJQ also tackles two compositions by Lewis. The album closer "The Sheriff" finds everyone playing with rapid-fire precision, the band obviously motivated by Kay's relentless cymbal work. The other Lewis-penned tune, "Winter Tale," provides the album's most humorous instance. After playing the song, which includes a rhapsodic theme reprised between sections of mid-tempo jamming, Lewis explains that it was written as a tribute to Hungarian music. An audience member quickly yells out "Why?." Lewis responds by simply saying, ..."because it sounds like their music. And I dig them," followed by much laughter and applause.
Fans of the Modern Jazz Quartet will no doubt find this release essential. It shows the prolific group at its absolute best. For new fans, it serves as an easygoing and enjoyable introduction to their vast catalogue.
Pyramid; In a Crowd; Mean To Me; Winter Tale; Bag's Groove; I Should Care; The Sheriff.
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