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Modern Jazz Quartet: Lost Tapes: Germany 1956-1958

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The German label Jazzhaus claims to be sitting on “possibly the most comprehensive reservoir of unpublished jazz recordings worldwide: more than 3,000 hours of footage.” In 2012 they began releasing their stash. They are now at 13 titles and counting. So far, all the music on Jazzhaus has been worthy of rescue.

Germany 1956-1958 is early MJQ: 11 studio tracks from 1956 and 1958 and two concert tracks from 1957. It is striking how, only a few years into its 40-year history, MJQ had fully realized its identity. They were the first “chamber jazz” ensemble. John Lewis’ arch, minimal classicism was the improbable, perfect complement to Milt Jackson’s lush, bluesy soulfulness. Behind them, Percy Heath and Connie Kay tiptoed, lithe as jungle cats.

“God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” is such a careful construct of canons and calls and responses that in other hands it might sound merely clever. But Jackson can make any song sensual. “Willow Weep for Me” contains one of his signature solos: extravagant, tumbling, passionate. Lewis comps for him, primly. Perhaps the reason MJQ lasted 40 years is that you never tire of their clarity and elegance. You would like to hear them play every song you ever liked. “You Go to My Head” is an exact balance of wit and warmth. A quick-on-quick “I’ll Remember April” shows how these four dignified, tuxedo-clad gentlemen could swing their asses off.

The weakness of Jazzhaus is inadequate documentation. There are two large ensembles on three tracks, the Harald Banter Ensemble and Orchester Kurt Edelhagen. The latter creates a “Django” on steroids, with roaring brass and reeds. Who are they? What is their story? With previously unreleased music over half a century old, there must be a backstory. That Jazzhaus is unwilling or unable to tell it makes their products less valuable.

Originally Published