A lot of jazz people love The Modern Jazz Quartet, but maybe not all the time. Some of them just wait for the parts when vibraphonist Milt Jackson gets to swinging — that was also Jackson's favorite part.
Jackson rode the irresistible pulse and beautiful blend of bassist Percy Heath, often used as a third melodic voice, and drummer Connie Kay, who had his own bright colors that didn't clash with vibes. I've been listening to The Modern Jazz Quartet a lot lately — even more with the arrival of Mosaic Records' seven-CD box set of 13 and a half albums that the group made for Atlantic between 1956 and '64. As good as the swinging numbers are, I'm more drawn to what some call the band's pretentious side. Besides a whole lot of blues, John Lewis wrote the group baroque-style canons and fugues, where one imitative line shadows another. These Euro-Renaissance practices were alien to most jazz musicians, but had been developed way-back-when as guidelines for improvising. And three staggered lines made for a clear ensemble texture. The music had plenty of light.
John Lewis' music for the MJQ often had that kind of stately grace. But once the other players got used to his baroque methods, and playing in scripted or spontaneous counterpoint, they could really fly on the material.
The Modern Jazz Quartet had an original concept, exploiting two musical traditions in a very specific way. It may be the best exemplar of so-called "third-stream music" jointly inspired by jazz and classical. The MJQ's interplay was mostly impeccable, and for variety the band worked with guests including soft clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, loud saxophonist Sonny Rollins, guitarist Laurindo Almeida and the Beaux Arts string quartet.
Milt Jackson was never crazy about the Modern Jazz Quartet's high-art material or John Lewis playing counterpoint behind his solos; he'd have been happy just to play the blues, which he did extremely well. But the vibes, with all that doorbell chiming, could be hard to get down and dirty on, and Jackson's gloriously round tone could make a slow blues sound whistle clean.
Not everything The Modern Jazz Quartet recorded between 1956 and '64 is gold; there are a few limp ballads and bossa novas, a couple of meet-ups with orchestras where the quartet's tighter than the symphony, and times when Lewis' composer's piano is a little stiff. MJQ devotees will want Mosaic's The Complete Atlantic Studio Recordings of the Modern Jazz Quartet 1956-1964 partly for Doug Ramsey's detailed booklet essay; where some annotators barely roll out of bed, he did his research and interviewed participants and witnesses like a real reporter. But most of the albums included are already out, and curious listeners might better start with No Sun in Venice or Pyramid or Fontessa, at least until they get the bug for more.