Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet
Modern Jazz Quartet may well be one of the definitive jazz groups of their time. When they formed in 1952, vibes player Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Kenny Clarke were all renowned, respected jazzmen. They quickly discovered their songwriting formula—cool, minimalist jazz accented by the powerhouse vibes and piano combination. Jackson played vibes like an accomplished pianist, and the two instruments harmonized in a unique manner that was instantly recognizable. Though their vast, extensive discography might not contain a truly definitive album, they managed to pepper their long career with numerous albums that belong in any jazz aficionado’s collection.
Their 1957 self-titled release for Atlantic is certainly one. For this release, recorded on April 7, 1957, the quartet opted to recreate their standard live set of the era, forty minutes of original material mixed with interpretations of jazz and popular show tunes. The seven songs highlight each member’s talents quite well, be it Lewis’ jaunty piano on “Bags’ Groove,”Jackson’s vibes extravaganza of “A Night In Tunisia,” Connie Kay’s powerful drumming on “La Ronde: Drums,” or Percy Heath’s consistently strong, groove-defining bass line, one that accentuates but never overpowers, setting a course for the rest of the band to build around. Though they retained an economy of sound throughout their career with their stripped-down, minimalist approach, it never grew old or tired; instead, it is strong records like Modern Jazz Quartet that brought people back, time and time again.
Eight bonus songs, recorded in New York throughout 1956, have been amended to the original album, and though Modern Jazz Quartet doesn’t need any extra tracks to improve it, these songs are certainly a welcome addition. Moreover, two of the bonus tracks, “Bags’ Groove” and “Between The Devil And The Deep Blue Sea,” appeared on the original album. These earlier versions are a bit more hurried and frantic than the album takes, but are still enjoyable. Also worth noting is the beautiful version of the Christmas standard, “God Rest Ye Weary Gentlemen,” which treats the song with reverence and makes for fine holiday fare.
There are many fine Modern Jazz Quartet albums to seek out, and this is definitely one of their best. It’s smooth, cool jazz in its finest, purest form, a treat for the ears and the soul. If you want the essence of the late, great, MJQ, Modern Jazz Quartet is one of the best places to start.