In 1946, Dizzy Gillespie’s big band was playing incendiary bop classics like “Things to Come”, “Our Delight”, “Emanon” and “One Bass Hit” on their nightly gigs. It didn’t take long for Gillespie to realize that his trumpeters needed more than the usual 15-minute breaks to recuperate, so he asked his star soloist and his rhythm section to play short intermission sets to extend the horn player’s time off the stand. The quartet—Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Ray Brown and Kenny Clarke—became popular on their own and created their own repertoire for their nightly spots. In 1951, when they recorded their only session with the original personnel, they were billed under Jackson’s name, but by the end of the next year—with Percy Heath replacing the already overbooked Brown—they were a cooperative unit called the Modern Jazz Quartet. Clarke left the group in 1955, replaced by the remarkable percussionist Connie Kay, and with that change, the MJQ personnel remained intact until Kay’s death in 1994. A few months after Kay joined the group, the MJQ changed record labels from Prestige to Atlantic, and under the guidance of Atlantic’s co-founder Nesuhi Ertegun, the MJQ made some of their finest recordings. Mosaic’s 7-CD box set, “The Complete Atlantic Studio Recordings” collects 14 albums from the MJQ’s first nine years with the label, which was arguably the group’s most influential period.
The Mosaic set includes an astounding range of music and repertoire. There are the MJQ’s famous experiments with Third Stream music, Lewis’ first (and possibly best) film score, collaborations with Jimmy Giuffre, Sonny Rollins and Laurindo Almeida, explorations of music by George Gershwin, Ornette Coleman and Gary McFarland, two extended Lewis compositions based on the Commedia dell’arte, and definitive versions of MJQ classics like “Django”, “Vendome”, “The Golden Striker” and “Bags’ Groove”. However, many listeners may be surprised to see that the set includes just a single Bach fugue, and only two albums with music entirely composed by Lewis. There’s an abundance of standards on the set, and the beautifully crafted arrangements make these pieces stand out from the rest of the selections. While I admire Lewis’ 11-minute suite “Fontessa”, my favorite track on that album is “Over the Rainbow”, which for most of its length is a tender and understated duet by Lewis and Jackson. The second album recorded at Music Inn has a wonderful canonic treatment of “Yardbird Suite”, and the ”Porgy and Bess” album has a powerfully emotional setting of “My Man’s Gone Now” and jaw-dropping tempo shifts on “It Ain’t Necessarily So”. On the LPs “The Sheriff” and “Collaboration”, the MJQ examines Brazilian music. While no one would ever mistake the MJQ’s renditions for authentic sambas, Kay does a credible job playing subtle variations on the clave beat, and on the second album, they find a close medium between their blues-saturated swing grooves and Almeida’s rather inflexible rhythmic conception.
That same rhythmic incompatibility plagues the Third Stream works. Gunther Schuller’s original theory was that Third Stream music that would combine elements of classical and jazz. Unfortunately, the orchestras of the time seemed unable to perform jazz rhythms, and that prevented the Third Stream composers and performers from creating a true musical fusion. Instead, there were endless compositions that contrasted the standard eighth-note pulse of classical music with the free-swinging sounds of jazz rhythm. To be fair, it’s doubtful that an orchestra of 100 jazz musicians could create convincing swing, let alone classically trained musicians, and pieces like André Hodeir’s “Around the Blues”, Werner Heider’s “Divertimento” (both on “MJQ and Orchestra”) and Lewis’ “Sketch” (from “Third Stream Music”) do what they can to bridge the inevitable rhythmic gap. Schuller’s pieces, “Conversation” and “Concertino for Jazz Quartet” work better in this regard by not emphasizing the rhythmic differences. On rehearing Lewis’ “Exposure”, I agree with Martin Williams’ original assessment that the main theme was weak; in that light, it is hardly surprising that Lewis’ best loved work for MJQ and orchestra was “England’s Carol”, a piece based not on an original theme but the Christmas carol, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”. Of all the Third Stream experiments, the collaborations with Giuffre hold up the best, both in his appearances as a soloist with the MJQ (“Fun” and “A Fugue for Music Inn” from the first Music Inn LP) and with the combined forces of the Jimmy Giuffre 3 and the MJQ (“Da Capo” and “Fine” from “Third Stream Music”). On these pieces, the musicians switch between straight time and swing with ease, and the music has an easier path in approaching Schuller’s original model.
The best moments on this 9-hour collection occur whenever the MJQ launches into a deeply swinging jazz groove. Happily, those moments are frequent, and they are not restricted to when the group is playing standards or jazz originals. Lewis’ album-length suite “The Comedy” was criticized in its day because of its connection to Commedia del’arte, but it’s hard to reconcile those thoughts when listening to the album’s many passages of vibrant swing and the brilliant solos by Jackson and Lewis. The closing minutes of the Schuller “Concertino” offer a thrilling example of the MJQ in full swing, as does the sparkling version of “The Golden Striker” from “One Never Knows”. And while Jackson apparently hated the practice, the vibraharpist never sounded more inspired than when Lewis accompanied him with contrapuntal lines and riff patterns instead of orthodox comping (Jackson was not the only beneficiary of Lewis’ accompaniments, either—listen to Sonny Rollins’ fascinating solo on “Bags’ Groove” on the second Music Inn album, where Rollins and Lewis play an elaborate game of cat-and-mouse with Jackson’s theme).
Mosaic’s presentation of this material lives up to their usual high standards. Engineer Ron McMaster has finely-tuned the sound from the original master tapes, making them sound better than they ever before. While all of the albums were originally issued in mono and stereo editions, Mosaic used the mono masters for the first two albums in the set, “Fontessa” and “Music Inn, Volume 1”. The wisdom of that choice becomes clear when listening to the stereo takes of “Bluesology”, “Woody’n You” and “Sun Dance”: it’s hard to believe that these muddy, undefined recordings came from the same sessions as their clear vibrant mono counterparts (Most of the alternate and rejected takes from the MJQ sessions were lost in a warehouse fire during the late 1970s; the six alternates in the Mosaic set represent cases where the mono and stereo versions of the LPs carried different takes). Doug Ramsey’s notes are breezy and informative, but listeners desiring more detailed discussions of the music may want to find or keep copies of the original Atlantic liner notes.
While the present set is a superb collection of classic MJQ recordings, it only tells part of the story. The Modern Jazz Quartet was amazing when they performed live, and I believe that someone—preferably Mosaic—should produce a companion box set with the MJQ’s best live recordings. It might be best for such a set to go beyond the Atlantic recordings, so as to include the group’s Newport Jazz Festival sets (particularly the 1956 set), the 1957 performances at the Chicago Opera House and the Donaueschingen Music Festival (both currently owned by Universal), plus the Atlantic live albums, “European Concert” (currently only available on CD with reversed stereo channels and minus Lewis’ spoken introductions), “Dedicated to Connie”, “Blues at Carnegie Hall” and “Live at the Lighthouse”. We may never hear another group that captures the MJQ’s unique balance of supremely executed ensemble passages and riveting solos. If the recordings provide our only viable connection to these masters, they need to be available for many years to come.