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Thad Jones: The Complete Blue Note/UA/Roulette Recordings

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With the greatest justification, Thad Jones is remembered as a giant among composers and arrangers of the second half of the century. As co-leader and director of the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra, he was an imposing and magnetic figure. But there was much more to Jones.

Before he started devoting most of his time and energy to writing and leadership he was unique among trumpet players of the 1950s-and since-for his power, fluidity and harmonic originality. His qualities as a composer and an improviser were inextricably intermeshed. He avoided the obvious; his compositions were as unusual as his choices of notes in a solo. Long before he left Detroit to join Count Basie in New York in 1954, he was a writer with deeply personal traits. His ingenuity as a composer/arranger and a player is on extensive and satisfying display in this Mosaic box.

Some of Jones’ charts on his first Blue Note session date from the early ’50s, when he was with Billy Mitchell at the Blue Bird in Detroit. His writing and playing on pieces like “Zec,” “Scratch” and his unusual arrangement of “Blue Room” show that he had long since harnessed his imagination, wisdom and resourcefulness. Those qualities intensified over the next three decades. His harmonic knowledge rivaled the chordal acumen of Fats Navarro. His tone was as personal a hallmark as Miles Davis’ or Kenny Dorham’s. In fluency, he was in the same league as Dizzy Gillespie. The unconventional intervals and wry humor that permeated his writing were also abundant in his playing. There are more than three hours of his brilliance here, and it may startle those who remember him only for occasional solos in the Thad Jones-Mel Lewis Orchestra.

The collection begins in the spring of 1956. It ends four years later when Jones was still with Basie but becoming increasingly driven to develop his own outlet. The core of musicians in his sessions consisted of other members of the Detroit jazz community who had moved to New York: His brothers Elvin and Hank, tenor saxophonist Billy Mitchell, pianists Tommy Flanagan and Barry Harris, guitarist Kenny Burrell, bassist Paul Chambers. Other players included Percy Heath, Max Roach, George Duvivier, Gigi Gryce, Benny Powell, Oscar Pettiford, Al Grey, Richard Davis, Shadow Wilson, Osie Johnson-a cross section of the decade’s elite.

Mitchell and Flanagan are on all but a few of the 27 tracks. Some of Mitchell’s best work on record is here, a reminder that this constantly improving tenor man has never received the recognition he deserves. Flanagan is superb throughout. Like Hank and Thad Jones, he seems to have emerged from Detroit fully developed and kept growing within his style. Elvin Jones, on the other hand, was evolving his approach. In the 1959 United Artists date, you can hear him edging toward the polyrhythms that would be so important to John Coltrane.

As for the leader, his playing is on a high plane from beginning to end. His creative musical thinking, passion of expression and clarity of execution are remarkable. I hear only one outright wrong note choice or mistake by him in the three CDs (in the final chorus of “I’ve Got A Crush On You”) and a miniscule percentage of the fluffs and near misses that any player experiences in the course of spontaneous creation. Few improvisers who take Jones’ kind of risks could match that consistency.

During the last 20 years of his life Thad Jones relegated his playing to second or third place behind his writing and band leading. His soloing could be as magnificent as ever, but several of his colleagues use the same phrase, “like pulling teeth,” when they talk about what it took to get him to pick up his horn. For a long time before his interest shifted, however, he was one of the most original trumpet soloists of his generation. The evidence is here.