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From the 1950s to the mid-'70s and on and off after that, The Modern Jazz Quartet were the height of jazz sophistication. From their tuxedos to their jazz arrangements of Bach, and original pieces that combine the language of baroque music with swinging rhythm.

Some folks heard it as a gimmick. But jazz critic Kevin Whitehead says their classical sound is ageless.

KEVIN WHITEHEAD: "The Golden Striker" by The Modern Jazz Quartet from the 1957 film soundtrack "No Sun In Venice." A lot of jazz people love The MJQ, but maybe not all the time. Some of them just wait for the parts when vibraphonist Milt Jackson starts swinging - that was also Jackson's favorite part.

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WHITEHEAD: Milt Jackson riding 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's seven-CD box set of 13 and a half albums that they 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 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.

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WHITEHEAD: John Lewis's 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. Here Lewis's piano and Milt Jackson's vibes intertwine on "Versailles."

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WHITEHEAD: The Modern Jazz Quartet had an original concept, exploiting two musical traditions in a very specific way. They may be the best exemplars of so-called third-stream music jointly inspired by jazz and classical. The MJQ's interplay was mostly impeccable, and for variety they worked with guests including soft clarinetist Jimmy Giuffre, loud saxophonist Sonny Rollins, guitarist Laurindo Almeida and the Beaux Arts string quartet.

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WHITEHEAD: 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 its 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. This is "Pyramid."

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WHITEHEAD: 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 orchestra where the quartet's tighter than the symphony, and times when Lewis's composer's piano is a little stiff.

MJQ devotees will want Mosaic's seven-CD box 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.

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DAVIES: Kevin Whitehead is a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. His new book is "Why Jazz?: A Concise Guide." He reviewed the "Atlantic Recordings of the Modern Jazz Quartet 1956-1964" on Mosaic.

Coming up, David Bianculli says we're in for some great television this week.

This is FRESH AIR.

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