The most important thing about the wealth of recordings unearthed from the archives of Südwestrundfunk (“Southwest Broadcasting”) currently being systematically released by Jazzhaus, is the insight it gives us into the way jazz was making a significant place for itself in the world beyond the United States’ borders. With the end of World War II, Europe was awash with most all of the great names in American jazz touring with their music, and their reception was very warm. The nearly 3,000 hours of previously unreleased music in the station’s vaults are testimony to the popularity of the American genre in Germany, and the rest of Europe as well.
While in a hoard that large, there are bound to be some clunkers, but by and large when you are talking about names like Zoot Sims, Duke Ellington, and Dizzy Gillespie, the chances are good they will be few and far between. And when you have a knowledgeable cadre of enthusiasts available to cull the best of the material, the chances are even better than good.
The latest release from Jazzhaus, The Modern Jazz Quartet: Germany 1956–1958: Lost Tapes, is a case in point. Certainly any new work from the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ) would be welcome under any circumstances, but here we have the musicians early on as they develop and grow the aesthetic that will come to define them. Formed in 1952 among members of the Dizzy Gillespie band’s rhythm section, pianist John Lewis, in some respects the ensemble’s visionary, had taken over as music director, and was continuing to fine tune his ideas about chamber jazz. It was also in 1952 that the Quartet’s roster was set: Lewis on piano, Milt Jackson on vibes, Percy Heath on bass, and finally Connie Kay taking over on drums.
If the music on the Jazzhaus album is not quite classic MJQ, it shows them on the road and nearly there. It opens with a set of studio recordings from October 1956 which includes a Jackson original, “Ralph’s New Blues” followed by a surprising “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” There are two standards: an inventive “Willow Weep For Me” and an uptempo “I’ll Remember April.” They are joined by the Harald Banter Ensemble for Lewis’s “Midsommer,” and a performance which comes off a bit dirge-like.
From a November session, the album adds a fine version of Jackson’s “Bluesology,” complete with a bit of classical fugue and Lewis’s homage to Django Reinhardt, “Django,” probably the composition most identified with MJQ. Here they work with Orchestra Kurt Edelhagen. The album also includes a solo version of “Tenderly” from Jackson, as well as some elegant solo work from him on Lewis’s “Cortege.” Other Lewis originals include “Sun Dance” and “J.B. Blues” which concludes the album.
All in all, the set offers a good look into the earlier work of a group that was on its way to becoming a major institution in the world of modern jazz.