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12/06/11

The Modern Jazz Quartet
The Complete Atlantic Studio Recordings of the Modern Jazz Quartet 1956-64
Mosaic Records

The Modern Jazz Quartet has typically been slotted a notch below the top jazz ensembles: a worthy enough unit, but also a source of consternation for fans of the genre, given how readily the band transcended it. They are certainly the most Bach-ian of jazz bands and, at their best, the most elegant. This seven-disc set refutes the old, lazy dismissal that the MJQ’s classical interests made their jazz precious and pretentious. The sound quality is a boon to the cause: Mosaic always makes sure that you can turn up the volume as high as you please and not risk being overwhelmed by sonic imperfections, but this might be the best-sounding set yet, and a goodly dose of volume does a lot for the MJQ’s jazz cachet.

The package comprises 14 highly variegated albums, but certain hallmarks are in place throughout. John Lewis’ piano figures have a glistening, seductive quality to them and dance across the soundscape like a corps de ballet of sprites. Percy Heath’s bass is steady but coy, providing color and inflection rather than standard accompaniment. Connie Kay benefits most from these transfers. His cymbal work lights up some of the darker corridors of the band’s music in a manner that fosters much of its warmth and humor, characteristics not normally associated with the MJQ. And then there is the revered showman, Milt Jackson, who comes off less as a stud soloist and more like an adept listener, especially to Lewis’ piano, which has a knack for opening spaces in the music where Jackson’s vibes can go exploring.

When they set their minds to it, the MJQ were certainly capable of kicking up some dust. “Baden-Baden,” from an April 1957 session, will make your speakers sweat. The pace is torrid, but Kay is cool throughout, as though he’d be all right with the band going faster still. The same session produced “La Ronde: Drums,” a signature piece for Kay, during which he gets to quote “Salt Peanuts,” a winking aside to another technically demanding number.

That sly MJQ humor appears regularly. It’s in evidence on “Columbine,” “Pulcinella,” “Pierrot” and “Harlequin,” from January 1962, a commedia dell’arte sequence that feels like a mini-picaresque, with Jackson’s vibes offering cheeky commentary. More serious is “Variation No. 1 on God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen,” live at the Music Inn in Lenox, Mass., from August 1956. This particular field recording is pretty much the opposite of what you’d expect from an in-concert tape, with the Christmas carol variant closing the performance. It’s a ghostly number, but the MJQ succeeds in lending it a reassuring, calming quality, a benediction for an audience that probably expected something quite different in the dog days of summer. Of course, we’re talking about a band that made a point of dislodging any and all capstones, which is entirely to its credit, and much to a listener’s good fortune.

Originally published in November 2011
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