Friday, March 27, 2015

Listening to Prestige Records Part 94: Sonny Rollins / Modern Jazz Quartet

The Modern Jazz Quartet were a fairly rare phenomenon in jazz in the 50s -- a stable group that had a collective name, as opposed to, say the Gene Ammons Septet or the Stan Getz Quartet, which would be Gene or Stan and whoever else was in town for the recording or club date. The musicians had come together as Dizzy Gillespie's rhythm section, and then had become the MJQ -- that is, the Milt Jackson Quartet. As the MJQ1, they were, as far as anyone knew, three guys whom Milt Jackson had gotten together for a gig. As the MJQ2, they were a different entity, but no one knew what. Certainly, no one knew that they would, with one change, be together for the next 40 years, thus becoming not just rare but unique.

So what had Prestige done with them to date?

John Lewis had done a number of sessions for Prestige, starting in 1949 with J. J. Johnson's
Boppers, when he was 29 and already a veteran of the New York jazz world, from his days newly out of the army with Dizzy Gillespie through his work as one of the major contributors to the Miles Davis nonet. He worked with Zoot Sims, with Miles and Sonny. And even after the first MJQ session--it was pretty clear how good these tunes were, and it had always been clear how good these musicians were, but there was no hint that they were to become. probably rivaled only by the Dave Brubeck Quartet, the most legendary sustained unit in the history of jazz. Yes, there have been other legendary units, like the Miles Davis quintet of the 50s, but that group was only a small part of Miles's career, and only a small part of Coltrane's. So they went on working. Lewis and Kenny Clarke worked on one Prestige recording date with Miles, Lewis and Percy Heath on another. Heath also played on the Miles and Bird (Charlie Chan) session. And they did sound good together, no doubt about it. The three of them were brought in to back up King Pleasure and the Dave Lambert Singers, and the quartet was brought in for a session with Sonny Rollins, and although Rollins was the featured performer on the gig, the Modern Jazz Quartet was credited as such. This would change, a few years later, when Atlantic would bring out The Modern Jazz Quartet at Music Inn, Vol 2 -- guest artist, Sonny Rollins.

The Atlantic album has been in my collection since the 50s, but I'd never heard this earlier collaboration before. It's a fascinating one. This is definitely a Sonny Rollins session, but it's definitely MJQ, too. This is probably the first time all four of them had worked as the MJQ with another artist, and it's an experiment worth listening to.These guys knew how to play together as a rhythm section, and they show that here. But they also knew who they were, and they show that here, too. And all five of
them make a pretty convincing argument that bebop is not dead.

They would go on to make enough tunes for Prestige to fill  two 12-inch albums which are no strangers to Greatest Jazz Albums of All Time lists. But before they were legends, they were working musicians playing the gigs that they got -- sort of unlike the Brubeck Quartet, who pretty much made it clear that they were legends to begin with. And working musicians like these are always worth listening to. 

These came out on 78, 45, EP, 10-inch and ultimately 12-inch LP.

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