Amidst the current flurry of releases from young guns redefining the boundaries of jazz, this compilation gives a timely reminder of the established jazz values they are questioning. The Modern Jazz Quartet had a long, distinguished career because generations of listeners found their music cool and easy on the ear.
Their combination of piano, vibraphone, bass and drums gave the MJQ an instantly recognisable sparse sound that was hugely influential. The absence of brass or saxophones concentrated attention on John Lewis's piano and Milt Jackson's vibes. The two complemented each other beautifully, indulging in call-and-response and creating interweaving melody lines.
All four players had their roots in bebop, having played with such legends as Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker and Miles Davis, giving the quartet an innate sense of swing. As well as cool jazz, MJQ were also influential in the combination of jazz and classical music known as Third Stream.
This produced striking combinations of material. Included here are jazz versions of the sprightly Bachianas Brasileiras by Brazilian composer Villa-Lobos, the carol God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, and the Bach cantata Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring, alongside jazz staples such as Thelonious Monk's 'Round Midnight and Ornette Coleman's Lonely Woman.
However, most compositions here are MJQ originals, including Jackson's Bag's Groove and Lewis' Django, both of which became popular jazz standards in their own right. In typical MJQ fashion, both pieces display a smooth surface beneath which lie greater complexities, so they sound better the more one listens to them.
In an extensive discography, many of the quartet's best releases were live recordings. This anthology wisely includes one disc of studio-recorded tracks and a second focussing on concert recordings. Live, the quartet sounded slightly rougher than in the studio, stretching out and exploring pieces more.
This release is an excellent overview of the MJQ's career, including most of their finest moments. It makes a good starting point for beginners. Established fans will be attracted by its inclusion of three unreleased tracks recorded in 1971 as part of the sessions that produced the Plastic Dreams album. --John Eyles
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