Over here in the United States, the month of February is Black History Month. The month of February is also the shortest month of the year. As a result of both of these facts, the staff of Raggy Waltz decided to celebrate Black History Month by spotlighting jazz albums made by black artists. Beginning now. First up? An East Coast group playing West Coast-ish jazz, of course! Zur Musik!
The Tune: “Ralph’s New Blues”
Recorded: 2 July, 1955
- Milt Jackson – Vibes
- John Lewis – Piano
- Percy Heath – Bass
- Connie Kay – Drum
1955: One year after the United States Supreme Court legally let my parents go to school with white kids. Ten years before my grandparents could legally vote in the U.S.
Recorded just before the group appeared at the Newport Jazz Festival, this album was historic for multiple reasons. It marked Connie Kay’s first album with the Modern Jazz Quartet, replacing Kenny Clarke. This album was also the MJQ’s first album recorded for the new 12-inch LP format. As a result, the guys stretch out and play in a casual, unpretentious manner. Picking a track to spotlight was a bit hard; I was going between the opening blues and “Softly As In Sunrise”. Both have a relaxed groove and excellent solos from all the guys in the group. I eventually settled on “Ralph’s New Blues” not just because of the tasty solos (especially John Lewis on this one) but the name. Written by Milt Jackson, the Ralph in the title is Ralph Gleason, San Francisco’s star jazz writer and critic. The West Coast connection deepens!
Milt Jackson could solo endlessly on the blues and yet manage to sound fresh each time, and he does so here. After a number of choruses, Jackson yields the floor to the piano of Mr. Lewis. There’s a slight key change that adds some flavor and Lewis is off. Well, “off” as only John Lewis could go off. His always-tasty piano is downright delicious here.
The rest of the music is standard MJQ fare such as a ballad medley of Gershwin chestnuts, another original, and a few jazz standards, all performed in a chamber music-style. Each tune’s arrangement alludes to classical music in some way. Even the most “blowing session”-ish track of the album “I’ll Remember April” has a little fanfare at the beginning before they’re off to the races. “Softly, As In A Morning Sunrise” is a study in relaxed swinging and has even more fantastic solos from Jackson and Lewis. Percy Heath’s bass playing is firm and full throughout, while Connie Kay’s drumming stays feather-light and out of the way. To here him use sticks on “I’ll Remember April” after hearing him quietly brush away on the previous tracks is a revelation. All in all, this is an understatedly (surprised that isn’t a word) swinging album with plenty of space given for the group to express themselves. Or, as a reviewer on Amazon said, this album “balances the cool, formalist approach to jazz (that one expects from MJQ) with a genuine swinging impulse.”
The Modern Jazz Quartet was famous for their unique brand of jazz that incorporated classical elements and combined them with jazz. This jazz fusion made them extremely popular during the 1950’s and even resulted in an award from the NAACP in 1957. They were among the first jazz groups to start playing concert halls in addition to the normal jazz club circuit. This and their penchant for wearing formal clothing during performances gave them an air of extreme importance, which of course they were. Three cheers for the Modern Jazz Quartet!
Raggy Waltz Rating: B
In another example of non-art artwork, Reid Miles created a cover that at first seems bland and basic. Closer study reveals a rather hip, sophisticated design. The album title, catalog number, and band name are festooned across the album in black. Some of the words are not completely spelled out. Yet in the chaos, the use of red lettering points out the important info. The clean white background gives the artwork an aesthetically pleasing look, making for a perfect album cover for a record of clean music. Well done.
This is not, however, the original artwork for this album. When the album was first released, the artwork looked like this:
I prefer the alternate cover to the original. What do you think?
I’m always amused by the liner notes to MJQ albums. No matter who the writer is, they turn into venerable long-hair music professors when it’s time to write notes on this group’s music. None other than Ira Gitler undergoes this transformation and writes a miniature essay any academic of the classics would be proud of. It almost gives you an idea of what audience they were writing to…
To get technical for a minute, another indication that this album is a later pressing is the dark box with the personnel/song track info inside. There’s other indications too (the address, for instance), but at the end of the day…
Rudy Van Gelder was behind the dials, so it still sounds good. My sentiments about RVG aside, I do like his sound. On this 1955 album, he was still settling into what would become his classic sound. The piano is nice and fuzzy (check), there’s space between the instruments (check), and the mono is punchy (check). Percy Heath’s bass is rather boomy and Connie Kay’s drums are somewhat lost in the mix, but overall the recording sounds great.
The labels are yet another indication of the later provenance of this record. They sport the New Jersey labels, used by Prestige from 1958 thru 1964. The vinyl is severely deep-groove, which indicates the album was probably pressed in the late 50’s after the initial 1955 release. Interestingly, while “RVG” is hand-written on the second side, it’s stamped on the first side.
The Place of Acquisition
During a summer trip back to the Motherland (Southern California), I stopped at the local record store, Redlands Vinyl. This being Southern California, the records were significantly more expensive than the records back in Huntsville, Alabama. Like, Erroll Garner records being sold for $15 bucks expensive. Accordingly, when I found this original-ish Prestige album, I was surprised to see it was only $19.99 (another bad sign at a record store-albums with sales tax). It was at the high end of my college collector budget, but I think it was worth it.