Wednesday, July 08, 2015

Listening to Prestige Part 130: Modern Jazz Quartet

Given the long and illustrious career of the Modern Jazz Quartet, the many amazing recordings they made, and the fact that most people consider the real MJQ to date with the installation of Connie Kay as drummer, it would be hard to point to any one album as their best.

But Django, the album that includes this session, and which has Kenny Clarke on drums, is the one that frequently makes lists of the hundred best jazz albums.

Perhaps it's because this is an almost mythic era in modern jazz. The late 40s (mostly because of Charlie Parker) and especially the 1950s were the time that really defined it.

Or that's one theory. I decided to put it to a test, so I looked at the New Yorker's list of 100 essential jazz albums, and found that 29 of them were recorded in the 50s, or partly in the 50s. There were a few more that I could have counted because they were released in 1960, and so were probably recorded in 1959, but they were albums like My Favorite Things that really belong to the 60s. Actually, a lot of the albums recorded in the 50s were by artists we don't really associate with the 50s, but what can you do? If I left them out, it would mess up my theory. Anyway, here's the list: Armstrong, Ellington, Basie, Benny Carter, Parker, Monk and Coltrane, Tristano, Davis 2, Powell, Mulligan, MJQ, Tatum, Brown/Roach, Vaughan/Brown, Mingus 2, Fitzgerald, Rollins 2, Puente, Sun Ra, Abbey Lincoln, Blakey, Jamal, Brubeck, Witherspoon, Coleman, Dinah Washington, Betty Carter, Sinatra.

Not every great jazz classic is a great composition. Some of the best -- best performances, best improvisations, best damn records -- are based on simple riffs. Look at Dexter Gordon and Wardell Gray's unforgettable "The Chase." Look at "One Bass Hit," from this session. It was written by Dizzy Gillespie for Ray Brown, and it's a showpiece for bass virtuosity -- one that allows a bass to become the lead instrument for an entire piece of music. Here, it allows Percy Heath to show what he can do, and it's delicious.

But "Django" is a great composition. It's one of the most haunting melodies I've ever heard. It carries a touch of the Eurojazz of Django Reinhardt, a touch of the blues, a touch of...well, here's guitarist Jim Hall describing it:
This tune has a beautifully constructed melody. It starts out with a kind of a simple motive in F-minor. Kind of a slightly sad idea for a melody, and then so it's this, and then there's a sequence, which is up a second, except that goes up instead of down. So first, it's this perfect answer and then it continues. It's going into the relative major key, if anybody cares, now it has some surprises. It has a great arrival point, that high G, and then it winds its way down. Almost sounds like he's saying Django's name here. And then the same thing an octave lower. So that's the tune anyway. It has kind of simple chords, but beautiful.
 "Milano" is the third tune on the session. Another beautiful melody, but there's a reason "Django" became the title cut for the album, and a reason why it's the one that's most remembered. They also recorded "I'll Remember April" that day, and it was never released. It's hard to imagine the MJQ screwing up "I'll Remember April" and maybe they didn't -- maybe it was a technical flaw of some sort. In any event, they re-recorded it successfully the following July.

 "Django" was released as a two-sided 45, and the three tunes made an EP, and were included (with "La Ronde") on a 10-inch LP, before the release of the classic 12-inch album which has made so many top 100 lists.

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