: MJQ: The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings

C. Michael Bailey By

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Establishing themselves as a chamber jazz combo...the Modern Jazz Quartet effectively took jazz from the club into the concert hall
In his homage to Johnny Cash upon the artist's recent death broadcast on CBS's Sunday Morning, commentator and VH1 Executive Director Bill Flanagan opined

It's becoming more apparent with every year that goes by that the period from the mid-'50s to the mid-'70s was a golden age for popular music [including jazz]. To have lived in the era where Cash and Presley and the Beatles and Stones and Aretha and Dylan and Miles Davis were around is like to have lived in Paris during the time of the impressionists.

That era is moving away. A lot of people have already gone. But you can still go out and buy a ticket and see Dylan and Aretha and James Brown. You can go to a theater or even a club and catch Sonny Rollins and Ray Charles and Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis?We can assume that these musicians who loom large in our culture will always be around. They won't. We should appreciate them while we have them because someday we'll turn around and they'll be gone.

Who Mr. Flanagan could be speaking directly about this the Modern Jazz Quartet. Save for the 80-year-old bassist Percy Heath, the remainder of this groundbreaking group is gone. Connie Kay (1927-1994), Milt Jackson (1923-1999), and John Lewis (1920-2001) all have preceded Heath, leaving a priceless recorded legacy.

Establishing themselves as a chamber jazz combo in the mid-'50s to '70s, the Modern Jazz Quartet effectively took jazz from the club into the concert hall, performing in tuxedos long before the great John Coltrane Quartet did. The Modern Jazz Quartet did not so much lend Jazz classical respectability as it did demand it. The jazz band second in longevity only to Ellington's big band, had its genesis as the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie's late 1940s big band. That rhythm section consisted of pianist John Lewis, Bassist Ray Brown, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, and drummer Kenny Clarke. This unit originally recorded as The Milt Jackson Quartet/Quintet with Percy Heath replacing Ray Brown on bass, releasing The Modern Jazz Quartet/Milt Jackson Quintet on Prestige in 1952. Shortly after this recording Kenny Clarke expatriated for France and Connie Kay sat in the drum chair. This began the career of one of the most respected and important jazz combos in the history of the genre.

The Modern Jazz Quartet's relationship with the Fantasy family of labels approximately bookended their 50-year career. Included in the four-disc MJQ—The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings are the eight LP recordings released between 1952 and 1985. These recordings include:

  • Modern Jazz Quartet/Milt Jackson Quintet (Prestige 7059, 1952)
  • Sonny Rollins with the Modern Jazz Quartet (Prestige 7029, 1953)
  • Django (Prestige 7057, 1953)
  • Concorde (Prestige 7005, 1955)
  • The Modern Jazz Quartet Reunion at Budokan 1981 (Pablo 2308-243, 1981)
  • Together Again/Modern Jazz Quartet Love at the Montreux Jazz Festival 1982 (Pablo 2308-244, 1982)
  • "Echoes" The Modern Jazz Quartet 1984—Together Again (Pablo 2312-142, 1984
  • "Topsy" This One's for Basie (Pablo 2310-917, 1985)

The first four of these recordings serve as the synthesis of Bebop, Cool, and the beginning of what would come to be called "Third Stream." John Lewis was intent on incorporating Classical European elements into the group's repertoire and did so successfully with pieces such as "Django," "La Ronde," "Vendome," and "the Queen's Fancy." But Lewis' efforts created a tension with the earthier blues master Jackson and this tension resulted in many memorable compositions, including "The Cylinder," "Ralph's New Blues," and "Odds Against Tomorrow." All of these compositions are celebrated this retrospective.

All of the music, save for a take of Duke Ellington's "Rockin' in Rhythm," has previously been released. Thus there is not a great deal to learn from the set aside from the significant fact that no other jazz groups performing at the time were producing a product as refined and well crafted as the Modern Jazz Quartet. Perhaps this is exactly what we are to take away from listening to this superb set of music.

For more information, see Fantasy Records .

Disc 1: 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 2: I'll Remember April; Gershwin Medley (Soon/For You For Me For Evermore/Love Walked In/Love Is Here To Stay); 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 3: The Jasmine Tree; Odds Against Tomorrow; The Cylinder; The Martyr; Really True Blues; Monterey Mist; Woody'n You; Echoes; The Watergate Blues; The Hornpipe; Connie's Blues.

Disc 4: 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).

John Lewis—Piano; Milt Jackson—Vibraphone; Percy Heath—Bass; Connie Kay—Drums.

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