In a Crowd

COMPOSERS: John Lewis
LABELS: Douglas
ALBUM TITLE: Modern Jazz Quartet
PERFORMER: John Lewis (p); Milt Jackson (vb); Percy Heath (b); Connie Kay (d)
CATALOGUE NO: ADC 2

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At this distance it is impossible to imagine the ire and gnashing of teeth the dignified and respectable Modern Jazz Quartet caused in the 1950s and 1960s. ‘Jazz can hardly survive in the impossible medium of the vibraphone, piano, bass and percussion’, said Wilfred Mellers. ‘The earthiness of jazz has been replaced by a fey tinkling’, said Benny Green.

Their hackles, in common with many others, had been raised by the MJQ’s attempt to graft European structures – particularly the conventions of Bach – onto hard-bop through the influence of its pianist and musical director John Lewis. It was a reaction against the prevailing practice of a predictable rodomontade of solos sandwiched between statements of the theme.

Solos hardly ever related to the melodic structure of the song or the solos that preceded them. Lewis reasoned that for the music to develop, more adventurous compositional form might be one way to enrich the music’s basic design, and that the improvisers’ line, in certain circumstances, might benefit from relating to the compositional tapestry in which it was presented.

That spontaneity could be preserved within such tightly conceived structures, without the loss of individuality or emotional power, was a minor miracle of creativity. Lewisown playing was a prime exhibit of the less-is-more ethic, while Jackson played with a very fluid, clear-thinking style that never moved far from the shadow of the blues.

In a sense, Lewis’s arrangements ensured that Jackson, one of the greatest vibraphone players in jazz, was always presented to maximum advantage in carefully constructed settings of great variety and charm. This beautifully packaged, top-quality live recording from the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival is from a period when the quartet was at its prime.

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The performers create a series of captivating musical cameos whose absence of frantic virtuosity was almost surreal in the context of the time, their whole conception running counter to the then prevailing hard-bop orthodoxy. SN