First Recordings!

The Modern Jazz Quartet

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First Recordings! Review

by Lindsay Planer

As the exclamatory title First Recordings! (1955) accurately proclaims, these 11 selections are taken from a trio of seminal Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) sessions held over a two year (1952 -- 1954) span. After a fortuitous stint with Dizzy Gillespie, Milt Jackson (vibraphone), John Lewis (piano), Percy Heath (bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums) gathered under the MJQ moniker in hopes of taking jazz past the bebop era. Unlike a majority of the other releases that include these sides, here they are presented in a strict chronological fashion. This methodology may not be the most artistically savvy, however it is undeniably beneficial to enthusiasts tracking the combo's stylistic progress. From December 1952 is the luminous and shimmering reworking of Jerome Kern's "All the Things You Are," marked by its distinct air of Polynesia during the brief introduction. The arrangement then settles into a mid-tempo swinging affair as Jackson propels his fluid vibes atop the MJQ's firm support. "La Ronde" is a Lewis original that is structured similarly to Dizzy Gillespie's "Two Bass Hit," which provides an ample platform for the brisk and intricate rhythmic syncopation. "Vendome" is another Lewis penned number containing significant insight into the MJQ's classically minded approach and is one of their most discerning factors. It is also a precursor to "The Queen's Fancy" that likewise utilizes the same fugal structure. Alternately, Duke Ellington's "Rose of the Rio Grande" is given a luminous workout with each supplying ample interaction. From June of 1953 are the aforementioned and appropriately regal "The Queen's Fancy," as well as the nimble exchanges heard on the bouncy "Delaunay's Dilemma." This is followed by a pair of pop standards, the understated elegance of "Autumn in New York" and "But Not for Me," both being familiar milieus for the MJQ and their listeners. The final three pieces hail from December 1954 and what is most immediately striking is the significant maturity that the band have garnered. This is evident not only in the intricacy of Gillespie's "One Bass Hit," but more pointedly on the Lewis compositions "Django" -- written for guitarist Django Reinhardt -- and the noir Mediterranean ballad, "Milano."

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