The longevity, popularity and surprising durability of the Modern Jazz Quartet is striking upon listening to Django , the group's very first full-length LP. Recorded at various times between 1953 and 1955, it introduces what amounts to Dizzy Gillespie's big band rhythm section, with pianist John Lewis (b. 1920), bassist Percy Heath (b. 1923, who replaced original bassist, Ray Brown), drummer Kenny Clarke (1914-85, who left shortly hereafter to be replaced by Connie Kay) and vibraphonist Milt Jackson (b. 1923) one of the greatest improvisers in jazz and a full member of the MJQ until his sad and unfortunate passing this very day, October 9, 1999. The MJQ actually began life in 1952 as the Milt Jackson Quartet, which of course, still makes it the MJQ. But it was John Lewis, a composer greatly influenced by classical and European traditions, who ultimately guided the group's too-serious formality, most successfully realized in the disc's title hit one of jazz's enduring staples. With the exception of Gillespie's "One Bass Hit," Vernon Duke's gorgeous "Autumn In New York" and Gershwin's "But Not For Me," this is an all-Lewis program (Jackson's "Bag's Groove" first showed up on an earlier Blue Note set with this group under the vibraphonist's own name). Like so much of Lewis's contribution to the music, these five pieces endure for good reason. Yes, they're seemingly strict structures. But the creativity of the bop language (and even earlier swing styles) greatly informs Lewis's logic ("Delauney's Dilemma" and "Milano" most memorably). The other three group members have no problem bringing Lewis's vision to dazzling life, but Jackson in particular is a joy to behold. This is classic jazz in construction and execution. Ultimately, it has become a classic on its own and, certainly, the place to begin appreciating the many and great virtues of one of jazz's finest aggregates.
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