The Modern Jazz Quartet is made up of Milt Jackson on vibes, John Lewis on piano, Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums. The group had its origins in Dizzy Gillespie’s 1946 Big Band where the men first played together during shows to give the brass section a rest. They worked under the name the Milt Jackson Quartet for a bit and then, to the chagrin of club owners, the group realized they were more of a co-operative unit and changed their name to The Modern Jazz Quartet, which alleviated the need to alter their monograms.
Lewis became the main composer and arranger for the group. The title song “Django” is his tribute to French gypsy guitarist Django Reinhardt. It starts out slow and reverent and then we get some playful, vibrant playing from Jackson and Lewis before it concludes with a repetition of the opening theme.
On “One Bass Hit” Heath gives the bass an intense workout and you can hear his fingers squeaking as they move up and down the catgut. Speaking of workouts, Jackson works the vibes so hard during “Autumn in New York” and “But Not For Me” that you can hear him grunting occasionally, but it doesn’t spoil the songs.
“La Ronde Suite,” is a fantastic piece that showcases each member even though it was originally intended as a piece for drummer Kenny Clarke. It is divided into four parts: where each man gets to shine while the others lay rhythmic support.
“The Queen’s Fancy” has a regal quality to it as the piano starts the tune like a processional. As the band plays, they keep returning to that opening theme throughout the song. The duality of the piece parallels the duality of royalty.
When you first listen to MJQ, you expect a horn to kick in and take over because this is a band that is made up of instruments normally relegated to the rhythm section. They usually provide a solid music foundation for featured artists to solo in directions unknown; however, these instruments all rise to the forefront of the band and are just as capable of capturing your attention and imagination. They are very talented men and they turn in excellent performances regardless of whether they are covers or Lewis’ compositions.
Django is one of those albums that’s so good it’s part of that pantheon of essential jazz recordings along the likes of Kind of Blue, A Love Supreme, Time Out, and Headhunters.
Audio purists take note: the disc doesn’t have the cleanest of sounds. A lot of hiss can be heard during some of the tracks. This hybrid SA-CD reissue doesn’t have any bonus materials so don’t be surprised when the disc ends in 39 minutes.