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The Modern Jazz Quartet - Complete Atlantic Studio Recordings: 1956-1964

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Artist: The Modern Jazz Quartet

Album: Complete Atlantic Studio Recordings: 1956-1964

Label: Mosaic Select

Review date: Jul. 26, 2011

In this epoch of hastily assembled reissues, often ill-conceived and containing no original research, it is inspiring that a company like Mosaic continues to release music such as this. Here, we are treated to a systematic reissue of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s recordings for Atlantic, in chronological order with alternate takes, in excellent sound and with superb liner notes. The set documents what might be the group’s finest period, where pianist John Lewis, vibraharpist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay refined a unique group approach to music-making that drew equally on swing, improvisation and counterpoint; they re-examined earlier material while laying the groundwork for future projects. The music couldn’t have had a better presentation than it receives here.

When Atlantic released the group’s label debut in 1956, the Modern Jazz Quartet had already been in existence for quite a while. As annotator Doug Ramsey relates, the idea for the group was born of necessity. Jackson and Lewis were in Dizzy Gillespie’s short-lived bebop big band during the late 1940s, which also included bassist Ray Brown and drummer Kenny Clark in the rhythm section. The charts were so demanding that short breaks for the brass were necessary, during which the stellar rhythm section would get a chance to stretch out. As this was a regular occurrence, Lewis began to arrange for the quartet, and an institution was born. Brown was the first to leave, and Clark emigrated to Paris two years later, after the 1955 sessions that produced the landmark album Django for Prestige but before the first date for Atlantic.

Given such a history, the group had obviously found its footing by the time the tracks for Fontessa were taped in January of 1956. The tensions between Jackson and Lewis, reiterated by Ramsey throughout the notes, had had time to develop and fester. Jackson’s reverence for the spontaneities of bebop and blues was always foiled, for good and ill, by Lewis’ penchant for counterpoint, arranged and otherwise. He’d often play some improvised contrapuntal lines as Jackson soloed, while the vibesman would have preferred some simple chordal comping.

These were the superficially opposing but truly complementary forces that would propel the quartet to its heights, and there are many. If the interwoven lines on “Versaille,” Fontessa‘s opening track, is a bit too much of a good thing, their rendering of “Angel Eyes” strikes a gorgeous balance. Listen as Lewis switches from line to chord and back while Jackson floats riffs in quick succession.

Yet, there’s so much more to the Modern Jazz Quartet sound than that, and “Angel Eyes” has it all. The first moments couldn’t be simpler, one note from Jackson in alternation with Kay’s triangle. Lewis and Heath enter, constructing a more and more elaborate network of phrases around that lone vibes note, a melody of tone colors right out of the second Viennese school. Such effective arrangement makes the tune fresh and the eventual surreptitious slide into swung rhythms is magical. Jackson’s double-time solo later in the tune is given perfect support by Kay’s brushwork and Heath’s rock-solid choice of each foundational tone.

These are the hallmarks of a crack ensemble, and they are evident throughout these seven discs. Sometimes the arrangements take on complexity, as with the 10-minute medley that opens the group’s 1957 self-titled album. There are themed albums, like the 1965 Porgie and Bess record, and collaborative efforts abound; notable among these are sessions with the late Jimmy Giuffre and one with Sonny Rollins, with whom the quartet recorded in 1953 for Prestige. I prefer the quartet on its own, but the material with Giuffre is fascinating for its “Third Stream” leanings. The Quartet never strays too far into the avant-garde, but a gorgeous version of Ornette Coleman’s “Lonely Woman,” taped in 1962, demonstrates at least a modicum of sympathy for the emerging New Thing.

The set straddles the mono and stereo eras, and so the Quartet revisited some of its earlier material, such as “Le Ronde” and “Bags’ Groove,” taking advantage of increasingly high fidelity. A side-effect of the transitional period was that while albums were released in both formats, some of the tunes were presented in different takes in mono and stereo. Mosaic has gone the extra distance and included these alternates. Sometimes, it was just a question of a different mix and a different introduction, as with “La Cantatrice” and “Harlequin,” from the 1962 themed album The Comedy. The stereo take of “Cantatrice” has an introduction that evokes the previous track, “Pierrot,” but it’s missing in the mono version. In other cases, the performances are totally different, as with “Bluesology,” from Fontessa. Comparisons are instructive, not only to determine what was improvised and what was arranged, but to demonstrate just how difficult it was to capture the group’s sound in early stereo. Mosaic engineer Ron McMaster has ensured that all the material in the set sounds as clear and full as possible, no matter what the original limitations were.

As great as the music is, it’s all been available before and will most likely remain so as long as music is circulated. Doug Ramsey’s notes might be the selling point for people who already have the music. In presenting the group’s history, he quotes liberally from contemporaneous reviews, and he’s conducted interviews with those in the quartet’s immediate circle. We are also given a glimpse of the Lenox School of Jazz’s early and diverse history, as that’s where John Lewis taught students such as Ornette Coleman. Of course, Ramsey also analyzes the music, and his excellent insight into the MJQ aesthetic serves as a lynchpin for this superb reissue.

By Marc Medwin

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