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Modern Jazz Quartet: The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings

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This attractive, four-CD box set brings together recordings from the beginning of the MJQ’s career with others made immediately after their seven-year breather that began in 1974. Between the early Prestige dates and the break, of course, was the long association with Atlantic that produced most of the group’s best-known work. Still, if the long gap makes this package seem slightly awkward, the fact that the MJQ never altered their musical course helps to make the 26-year lapse, which occurs between two versions of “Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise” near the beginning of the second disc, relatively smooth. By this time, the listener has heard the groundbreaking work that made the group both controversial and successful, including the fine session that united them with Sonny Rollins just as he was approaching his prime.

There’s little need at this point to comment on John Lewis’ conception for organizing jazz along classically influenced lines. Some people have never liked it, but many others have found the straight article hard to swallow without some sugarcoating, and undoubtedly Lewis converted a number of these into real jazz fans. In between the diehard fans and the people who don’t want to know are a lot of folks who feel that Lewis and Milt Jackson balanced each other quite well. Great soloist that he was, Jackson did tend to rely on very familiar structures when left to his own devices. Certainly the earlier recordings are the more essential ones here, but there are some fine performances throughout the later discs.

The foursome sound quite happy to be back in the saddle on the 1981 concert originally released as Reunion at Budokan. Real fans will also want the other Pablo material, though the impression from here is that by the time we get to the 1985 release Topsy: This One’s for Basie the band was again in a bit of a rut.

The one problem with this box set is that it features only one unissued track, and since its main appeal will be to MJQ fanatics who already own a lot of the Atlantic titles, the question is whether they don’t already indeed have the Pablos. Any who don’t should not hesitate to grab this set. But listeners who just want the best of this group might be better off picking up the CDs that feature the early recordings.