LP Review: Modern Jazz Quartet - October 28, 1957 NDR Studio Hannover



Modern Jazz Quartet - October 28, 1957 NDR Studio Hannover
(Moosicus Records NDR 60 Years Edition. N1304-1/NDR04. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)


Another lavish package from the German label Moosicus, celebrating 60 years of jazz at Norddeutscher Rundfunk (NDR), Hamburg’s public radio station. The wealth of music preserved over those six decades is overwhelming (and beautifully recorded) and the giants of the jazz world are all here, including the Modern Jazz Quartet.

By the time these sessions were recorded on 28 October 1957, the MJQ had been together for five years and it’s unlikely there was a tighter unit in jazz. This was the year they were just beginning to taste their big success and were visiting Europe for the first time, where they were particularly well received in Germany.

The album consists mostly of compositions by the band members, with a few standards added for good measure. Vendome is one of three pieces by John Lewis. As it opens the session, the Bach-like quality of their playing, particularly Lewis’s piano and Milt Jackson’s vibes, suggest a kind of Jacques Loussier approach — two years before Loussier formed his trio. But then the pace picks up and the piece tightens in urgency, with Percy Heath’s double bass growing in power and volume. Jackson plays likes he’s sliding smoothly down a spiral staircase before the tune returns to its austere baroque beauty and a calmly composed cessation.

Venice, another John Lewis original, is sweet, laid-back and sunny from the outset. Connie Kay’s drumming is delicate, restrained and astute while Lewis’s relaxed, leisurely, almost drawling piano contrasts with the febrile precision of Jackson’s runs on the vibraphone. Then it’s Jackson’s turn to take it easy, making the vibes sing in the manner of Johnny Mercer’s vocal on Two Sleepy People, a tune to which Venice bears an intermittent but striking resemblance.

Nowhere is the quartet’s amalgamated talent more clearly demonstrated than on the Milt Jackson composition Bluesology. It is a particularly insinuating piece, instantly getting under the listener’s skin, thanks in no small part to Connie Kay’s use of the brushes. Jackson is shimmering and radiant here and Lewis’s comping fits him like a second suit of clothes.

All the Things You Are begins with a darkly hypnotic intro from Percy Heath’s rustling, booming bass which is then dotted with little splashes of colour from Milt Jackson, giving an almost tribal, incantatory feel. The mesmeric solemnity then drops away and is replaced by brisk, merry and measured playing. The rhythm section create a minimalist skeleton while Jackson’s vibes provides colour and puts flesh on the bones. Then he hands over to the piano and John Lewis explores the contours of Jerome Kern’s tune with gentle discretion and insinuating charm. It’s the high point of a fine album.

This recording includes several brief spoken introductions and control room comments interspersed amongst the music, to make it a complete document of the sessions. They are listed as separate tracks and I imagine that on the CD version you can skip them or program them out. On the vinyl, you either get lots of exercise visiting the turntable or, as I did, just sit back and enjoy them. John Lewis turns out to be charmingly self-effacing.

The only worry with these NDR 60 archival releases is that one day they may stop. The vinyl issue also includes a free digital download.

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