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Milt Jackson: Wizard of the Vibes

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The pairing of the Modern Jazz Quartet and Blue Note Records seems somehow incongruent. Blue Note was the home of hard bop—blues- and gospel-influenced, down to earth and funky. The MJQ navigated the Third Stream—sophisticated, refined, classically oriented and formal. They even performed in tuxedoes.

But there was a hefty dose of blues to the MJQ's Bach, most of it courtesy of vibraphonist Milt Jackson. Jackson's masterful blues-oriented improvisations are on fine display here on his only Blue Note outing.

The entire membership of what would eventually become the MJQ is present on these recordings. Pianist John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke provide excellent support for Jackson. Filling out the lineup is a young Lou Donaldson playing very Bird-like alto sax.

Jackson is a well-recognized innovator on his instrument—the vital link between the swing era's Lionel Hampton and post-bop's Bobby Hutcherson. And those in the know hail him as a genius-level improviser. Even those who haven't recognized that fact when listening to the MJQ—where Jackson’s improvisational powers were sometimes reined in by Lewis’ compositions—will find it hard to miss in this context.

These sessions came early in Jackson's career—1952—but his playing style is exceptionally well-realized and mature. He plays blazingly fast, his melodic imagination keeping perfect pace with his mallets. His MJQ cohorts provide excellent accompaniment. It's a thoroughly enjoyable session and the only, minor, let down is Lou Donaldson. This was his first of a zillion sessions for Blue Note and his youth shows. Nothing wrong with his Charlie Parker imitations—who better or more difficult to emulate?—but his improvisational skills pale next to Jackson's. Still, only a nitpicker would fail to enjoy these sides, which appear in crystal clear sound thanks to remastering by famed Blue Note engineer Rudy Van Gelder.

The tunes include a few originals by Jackson including the lovely ballad "Lillie" and an early version of his signature tune "Bag's Groove." A highlight is a very swinging take on Ellington's "Don't Get Around Much Anymore," featuring Donaldson's best playing on the date.

This entertaining session is augmented the same disk by Jackson's historical July 2, 1948, recording date with Thelonious Monk. The pair, joined by John Simmons on bass and Shadow Wilson on drums, play the earliest versions of Monk's best-known compositions: "Evidence," "Misterioso," "Epistrophy," and "I Mean You." On two standards—"All the Things You Are"and "I Should Care"—the group plays backup to stilted, croonerish vocals by Pancho Hagood. Those tunes seem out of place alongside Monk's still very modern-sounding works of genius.

Hearing Monk and Milt work off each other is a true pleasure. What a fascinating contrast—Monk's stop-start, playful quirkiness trading with Jackson's flowing bop blues.

Because it's Monk, and early Monk on Blue Note at that, this CD is a must for those who don't already own the music. It's a vital piece of jazz history and it's a blast to hear.

The only disappointment, to some ears, may be the sound on the Monk portion of the disk. Van Gelder remastered the session from lacquer and there's quite a bit of surface noise. But at the same time all the instruments—bass and drums included—sound very clear and distinct, which might not have been the case had Van Gelder used a heavier hand when cleaning up these recordings. It may be that it's not possible to improve them any further. I certainly trust Van Gelder's ears and judgment. So, if you can listen past some hissing and crackling (I'm probably making it sound worse than it is) you'll enjoy some very fine, very important music.


Track Listing: Tahiti; Lillie; Bag's Groove; What's New; Don't Get Around Much Anymore; On The Scene; Lillie (alt.); What's New (alt.); Don't Get Around Much Anymore (alt.); Evidence; Miserioso; Epistrophy; I Mean You; Misterioso (alt.); All The Things You Are; I Should Care; I Should Care (alt.)

Personnel: Milt Jackson (vibraphone); Kenny "Pancho" Hagood (vocals); Lou Donaldson (alto saxophone); John Lewis, Thelonious Monk (piano); Percy Heath, John Simmons (bass); Kenny Clarke, Shadow Wilson (drums).

Title: Wizard of the Vibes | Year Released: 2001 | Record Label: Blue Note Records

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