Saturday, May 23, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 113: Milt Jackson

There was an MJQ before there was a Modern Jazz Quartet, and it had essentially the same lineup, with Milt Jackson and John Lewis and Kenny Clarke (Percy Heath hadn't joined yet). That MJQ was the Milt Jackson Quartet.

So here's another MJQ, this time a quintet, with Horace Silver filling the piano spot.

The Modern Jazz Quartet is one of the most justly revered of all jazz groups, but it wasn't always so. The MJQ were going their own way as bebop was turning into hard bop, and a lot of devotees of the harder sound professed to find the MJQ too safe, too genteel. They weren't, of course, but that was what their detractors said.

But nobody didn't like Milt Jackson, and it was an article of faith among the detractors that the MJQ was holding Jackson back, not letting him play the funky, bluesy, hard-boppy music he was capable of, and secretly wanted to play.

That way of thinking is long behind us, along with the wars between the beboppers and the moldy figs, but we still do have the recordings that Jackson made apart from the Modern Jazz Quartet, and yes, with Horace Silver on board, it is a different sound.

The fifth musician here is trumpeter Henry Boozier, and his inclusion certainly suggests that Jackson was going for a funkier sound. Boozier is probably better known for his work in blues and rhythm and blues, which is an odd way of putting it, since blues bands didn't generally list all their personnel on their recordings. So not better known to the general public, but better known in the sense that he'd more likely be called to work on a blues date. He recorded with B. B. King, Bobby "Blue" Bland, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Paul "Hucklebuck" Williams. His song, "Ask Me 'Bout Nothin' but the Blues," was recorded by Bland, Boz Skaggs, and others. He doesn't seem to have any other jazz recording credits, but Jackson brought him back in 1960 to record with his octet.

"Funky" has been around as long as jazz has been around: 
I thought I heard Buddy Bolden say
Funky-butt, funky-butt, take it away.
 And according to at least one authority, it has an African etymology. According to Yale art historian Robert Farris Thompson in his 1984 work, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy:

The slang term 'funky' in black communities originally referred to strong body odor, and not to 'funk,' meaning fear or panic. The black nuance seems to derive from the Ki-Kongo lu-fuki, 'bad body odor,' and is perhaps reinforced by contact with fumet, 'aroma of food and wine,' in French Louisiana. But the Ki-Kongo word is closer to the jazz word 'funky' in form and meaning, as both jazzmen and Bakongo use 'funky' and lu-fuki to praise persons for the integrity of their art, for having 'worked out' to achieve their aims. In Kongo today it is possible to hear an elder lauded in this way: 'like, there is a really funky person!--my soul advances toward him to receive his blessing (yati, nkwa lu-fuki! Ve miela miami ikwenda baki) Fu-Kiau Bunseki, a leading native authority on Kongo culture, explains: 'Someone who is very old, I go sit with him, in order to feel his lu-fuki, meaning, I would like to be blessed by him.' For in Kongo the smell of a hardworking elder carries luck. This Kongo sign of exertion is identified with the positive energy of a person. Hence, 'funk' in black American jazz parlance can mean earthiness, a return to fundamentals.
However, I wouldn't have thought of "funk," as a noun referring to a genre of music, to have been commonly used much before the 60s, but we have it here, in a Horace Silver composition, and an opus de funk it is, with some great interplay between Silver and Jackson, and a solo by Boozier that shows solidly why Milt Jackson called on him for this gig.

Silver also composed "Buhaina," presumably a tribute to Art Blakey, who had taken the Muslim name Abdullah ibn Buhaina, though he continued to use what many black Muslim converts would come to call his slave name. This one has some striking interplay between Jackson and Boozier, and later between Silver and Percy Heath--and, a little surprisingly, no extended drum solo for Kenny Clarke.

Jackson composed the other two. "I've Lost Your Love" is sort of an unusual title for a modern jazz instrumental, and I'd love to hear the story behind it. It's a ballad, and it features a knockout trumpet solo by Henry Boozier.

"Soma" is another Jackson composition, and maybe what I love most about it is the ensemble work on the head. You don't every day hear a trumpet, vibes and piano working as an ensemble front line. Jazz surpasses expectations so often, and in so many ways.

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