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Two periods, one sound

The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings
The Complete Modern Jazz Quartet Prestige and Pablo Recordings
By the Modern Jazz Quartet

Prestige / Pablo / Fantasy Records: 2003

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This review first appeared in the Winter 2003 issue of Turbula.

One of the most influential jazz combos of the post-Big Band era, the Modern Jazz Quartet was also one of the first to show that jazz could find an audience as a music to be listened to rather than danced to.

A new four-disc set is an interesting take on their career, in that it takes in the very earliest and then the latter stages of that career. Due to the vagaries of the recording industry, MJQ recorded for a variety of labels through the years. Of these labels, Fantasy Records now owns two of them – Prestige (for which MJQ recorded in the early and mid-1950s) and Pablo (for which the band recorded in the 1980s).

In a sense, however, both periods captured in this collection are beginnings – for after Milt Jackson left the band in 1974, causing it to break up, it was for Pablo that the band reunited in 1981.

And what both periods also show is that MJQ occupies a unique niche in jazz history – they pioneered an approach that combined the purest artistry with an ability to connect with popular audiences through an accessible sound.

What Duke Ellington was to the swing era, MJQ was to the period of bop and cool. This was modern tuxedo music – let Miles Davis, Ornette Coleman and the other angry young cats cop an attitude. MJQ's music was often just as innovative, but always in a supper club atmosphere.

Anchored by the sophisticated ambience of Jackson's vibes, MJQ possesses a surprisingly lush sound for a small combo. The arrangements are rich, the playing superb, the overall experience polished like the good silverware mom saved for company.

The accompanying booklet is full of MJQ history, recording info and tons of photos. If a bit odd having a box set taking in two periods in a band's life a quarter-century apart, MJQ never changed their sound all that much – instead, they kept working on and refining what they had already created.