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

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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.

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