Here is a portrait on four discs, spanning the years 1952 to 1985, of the Modern Jazz Quartet at the beginning and near the end of their reign. The MJQ, which would become internationally popular and as synonymous with elegance as Lalique crystal—while never losing touch with the blues that is at the heart of jazz—traced its beginnings to Dizzy Gillespie’s 1946-47 orchestra. It was with Gillespie that pianist-composer John Lewis and vibist Milt Jackson first gained wider notice.
With Gillespie bandmate Kenny Clarke, father of bop drumming, and rich-toned bassist Percy Heath (who’d replaced original bass player Ray Brown), they decided to form a unit: the Milt Jackson Quartet. When a new contract with Prestige Records was signed, one MJQ became another—the Modern Jazz Quartet was born.
After Clarke’s departure in 1955, his successor Connie Kay, as much multiple percussionist as jazz drummer, added an array of tonal colors on various instruments.
Lewis took the role of the MJQ’s principal composer and music director; Jackson, their foremost soloist. The foursome blazed a trail that led from the American art of the blues to the Western European art of the fugue and back again. This they did with Basie-esque understatement, glistening sonorities, contrapuntal brilliance melding Bach to bop, and the precision of a designer Swiss timepiece.
Whether the material was their own, jazz standards by Gillespie and Ellington, or various great pop songs, the MJQ was sui generis. In the studio or before fervent live audiences in Japan and Switzerland, these 54 impeccably remastered selections from the vaults of Prestige and Pablo present one of the 20th century’s most esteemed ensembles, jazz or otherwise.