Released in 2007, Proper Box 120 is a four-CD salute to drummer and bop icon Kenny "Klook" Clarke (1914-1985), whose Muslim name was Liaqat Ali Salaam. "Klook" was short for "Klook Mop," a slightly disparaging bit of onomatopoeia used by bandleader Teddy Hill in the late ‘30s to describe Clarke's unconventional technique at a time when most of the American public considered Gene Krupa to be the model jazz percussionist. According to Dizzy Gillespie, Klook "initiated a new language into the mainstream of jazz drumming ...modifying the concept of rhythm in jazz, making it a much more fluid thing, and changing the entire role of the drummer, from just a man who kept time for dancers to a true accompanist who provided accents for soloists and constant inspiration to the jazz band as a whole." This superbly selected and annotated anthology represents the most substantial single-package Kenny Clarke edition in existence. 38 of its 72 tracks were recorded in the U.S., and 30 in Paris. the first four titles were cut in Stockholm, Sweden in March, 1938 when Clarke was still an active member of the Edgar Hayes Orchestra. Credited to Kenny Clarke's Kvintett, these swing-based sides are different as can be from the rest of the material on this set, as Clarke plays xylophone and three of the four sides are buttered with naive pop vocals by one James Anderson. "Sweet Sue" is valued as the earliest Clarke-led instrumental on record. Hayes' creative piano solo on this track is a high point, and the overall impression is that of an early Red Norvo unit.
The real action begins as the timeline jumps to September, 1946 and "Epistrophy" which Clarke co-composed with Thelonious Monk. Using an arrangement by Walter Fuller, Clarke's 52nd Street Boys delivered what at the time qualified as cutting-edge modern jazz. The lineup included trumpeters Fats Navarro and Kenny Dorham, saxophonist Sonny Stitt, and pianist Bud Powell. A treatment of Charlie Parker's "Confirmation" lands the listener in Paris during the spring of 1948 for the first of Clarke's many modern-styled dates in mainland Europe. Frenchmen heard on the late ‘40s recordings which fill out the first disc include violinist Andre Hodier as well as saxophonists Hubert Fol, Michel de Villers, and Jean-Claude Forenbach. Although only two examples of Clarke's 1950 collaborations with saxophonist James Moody made it onto this collection, the caliber of musicianship throughout the set is consistently high enough to compensate for the puzzling omission. Moreover, beginning with "Klook's Nook," five entire Savoy albums are reissued here in their entirety.
Clarke was a founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet, a group with roots in Dizzy Gillespie's Orchestra. Proper provides some excellent material from late 1954 and early 1955, near the end of Klook's involvement with the Quartet. MJQ-ers Milt Jackson and Percy Heath are heard with altoist Frank Morgan and sax/flute man Frank Wess. Further adventures from 1955 find Clarke busily collaborating with Ernie Wilkins, the Adderly Brothers, Horace Silver, and Paul Chambers. Klook spent the first half of 1956 in New York making records with saxophonist John La Porta and a contingent of Detroiters that included Donald Byrd, Pepper Adams, Tommy Flanagan, and Kenny Burrell. By late October of 1956, Klook was back in Paris, this time to record with Algerian pianist Martial Solal and bassist Pierre Michelot on an album of works arranged by Andre Hodeir. The final nine tracks on this superb compilation were taped in late November, 1956, with Solal and Klook joined by ex-Django Reinhardt clarinetist Hubert Rostaing, now blowing alto sax. This box set is a strong entry in the Proper catalog, and with all due respect to Shadow Wilson, Denzil Best, Art Blakey, and Max Roach, Kenny Clarke remains the great understated and underappreciated architect of early modern jazz. As the late Billy Higgins succinctly put it: Klook's the Man.