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Modern Jazz Quartet: Bluesology: The Atlantic Years 1956-1988

Chris May By

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Asked to name the most insurrectionary artists associated with the Atlantic label, most jazz fans would probably think first of saxophonists John Coltrane and Ornette Coleman. Pianist John Lewis' Modern Jazz Quartet would come much further down the list. Yet in its own, more velvet manner, the MJQ was as radical as Coltrane and Coleman. When the group came to prominence in the mid-1950s, its elegant chamber music, a blend of the blues and European baroque, subverted many of the conventions of the hard bop era and caused a storm of controversy.

Appearing on stage in immaculately tailored tuxedos and formal in its approach to the audience—for both of which actions some contemporary observers ludicrously accused the group of "trying to be white"—the MJQ married delicacy with drive, and replaced the prevailing hard bop paradigm of theme/solos/theme with through composition and collective improvisation. The group succeeded in making the blues sound baroque, and fugues and rondos sound soulful and modern. And at no point did the music ever stop swinging. It was a revolutionary achievement, and an enduring one.

Fronted during its first few years by vibraphonist Milt Jackson, by 1955 the MJQ was very much Lewis' baby. The pianist—extensively trained in the classics but also previously a member of, and arranger for, bands led by saxophonist Charlie Parker and trumpeters Dizzy Gillespie and Miles Davis—wrote most of the material, and Jackson became the band's chief soloist, often working contrapuntally with Lewis or bassist Percy Heath (who had replaced founder member Ray Brown). Drummer Connie Kay (who replaced Kenny Clarke) was heard on brushes more often than sticks, and had a trippy line in bells, triangles and finger cymbals. Kay's style was refined and understated but it always swung like the clappers. The group broke up in 1974, when Jackson opted to pursue a solo career. It reformed as a touring outfit in the mid 1980s, performing until Kay's death in 1994.

Warner's two-disc Anthology series—which in 2008 released well put-together compilations of Atlantic recordings by pianist Keith Jarrett and saxophonist Charles Lloyd—has once more done its chosen subject proud with Bluesology: The Atlantic Years 1956-1988. The first disc is a selection from the MJQ's copious studio legacy, the second is taken from live recordings (with the final three tracks comprising material not included on the 1971 studio album Plastic Dreams). All tracks except 1988's "For Ellington" were recorded during the group's 1956-1974 heyday.

It is, of course, impossible over a mere two discs to document the MJQ properly, but Bluesology amply fulfils its function as a taster—anyone hearing it, and unfamiliar with the original albums from which it is drawn, will likely feel compelled to check them out. If so, Fontessa (1956), Pyramid (1960) and Blues On Bach (1973) are among the key studio sets, and Dedicated To Connie (recorded in 1960 but not released until 1995) and The Last Concert (1974) among the best live ones.

Track Listing: Tracks: CD1: Bluesology; The Golden Striker; Bags' Groove; Da Capo; Vendome; Django; England's Carol; Lonely Woman; Animal Dance; The Sheriff; Bachianas Brasileiras; Walkin' Stomp; Precious Joy; For Ellington. CD2: A Fugue For Music Inn; Fun; Night In Tunisia; I Remember Clifford; Midsommer; Winter

Personnel: Personnel: Milt Jackson: vibraphone; John Lewis: piano, harpsichord (CD1#13); Percy Heath: bass; Connie Kay: drums; Jimmy Giuffre: clarinet (CD1#4, CD2#1, CD2#2); Jim Hall: guitar (CD1#4); Ralph Pena: bass (CD1#4); Sonny Rollins: tenor saxophone (CD2#3); orchestra conducted by Gunther Schuller (CD1#7); Joe Newman: trumpet (CD2#10); Snooky Young: trumpet (CD2#10); Garnett Brown: trombone (CD2#10); Jimmy Buffington: French horn (CD2#10); Don Butterfield: tuba (CD2#10).

Title: Bluesology: The Atlantic Years 1956-1988 | Year Released: 2009 | Record Label: Warner Jazz


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