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John H. Armwood Jazz History Lecture Nashville's Cheekwood Arts Center 1989

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Music Review: The Modern Jazz Quartet - Under the Jasmin Tree/Space (Original Recording Remastered)

Music Review: The Modern Jazz Quartet - Under the Jasmin Tree/Space (Original Recording Remastered)

Wednesday, December 15, 2010
Last updated 8:22 p.m. PT


The Modern Jazz Quartet had their origins in trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie's orchestra where vibraphonist Milt Jackson, pianist John Lewis, and drummer Kenny Clarke played together. Bassist Percy Heath completed the foursome in 1952 and then Clarke was replaced by Connie Kay in 1955. For a brief time, they were signed with the Beatles' label, Apple Records and recorded two albums Under the Jazmin Tree and Space, which have been remastered and are now available as digital downloads and together on a single CD.

The former is comprised of four tracks. A few seconds into "The Blue Necklace," the music sounds like the listener is descending slowly, bringing to mind Alice falling down the rabbit hole. The drums are joined by something being shaken that sounds like wooden wind chimes. The vibes deliver some high notes but then for me the whole thing falls apart at 1:48 when a bell is repeatedly struck, resulting grating high-pitched tones. It's unfortunate not only because there's some great interplay between the piano and vibes, but I all can think of is this tortuous bell is ringing out like the beating of a tell-tale heart. The damn thing finally stop at 4:21 but it's too late at that point, as I never want to hear this song again.

"Three Little Feeling (Part I, II, III)" really lets everyone shine over the course of 14 minutes in three movement running three, six, and five minutes. After the quartet plays for a few seconds, the vibes drop away and the drummer switches to brushes. The Bass stands out and then vibes return. The piano solos and someone humming can be faintly heard. Cymbals are the first to return; the bass joins in to help push the pace. Vibes then come in and dominate the arrangement. A crescendo builds and then falls away. After a moment of silence, the bell briefly returns but thankfully goes away after a few strikes and then they continue their interplay. Odd that the title refers to three feeling because many emotions flow through the track or maybe that's just my response.

"Exposure" follows in a similar vein as different members come to the forefront while the others offer support. "Jasmine Tree" hearkens back to "Blue Necklace" as the bell returns and is played incessantly. It's unfortunate because the piece has such joy from the handclap accompaniment but again all I can think of is when is this song going to be over so I don't have to hear that damn bell any longer. It's an excruciating 3:43 by the time it does, but the handclaps fall away as well. A slow fade out ends the song and that album.

The next five tracks are from Space, and opening track "Visitor From Venus" certainly has a spacey sound; the engineer augmenting it with effects and playing with tapes. At one point, the vibes have a high pitch reminiscent of a child's music box. The humming returns a little past the halfway point at 3:35. The piano has some nice runs, evoking a comet soaring across the expanse of space, while the vibes steps back.

I enjoyed that visitor but can't say the same for the "Visitor From Mars" because that cursed bell returns. At this point in the CD, I consider making my own mixtape removing all the tracks where that damn bell is played. Gadzooks, it's maddening, and I can't believe no one else in the group thought so as it nearly drives me mad. Thankfully, it falls away at 1:38 but felt like it had been running much longer.

The space theme stops there, and the band returns to a more traditional jazz sound of rhythm section playing under with the vibe and piano leads. They start with Van Heusen/Burke's ballad "Here's That Rainy Day from the musical Carnival Of Flanders, then play Miljenko Prohaska's "Dilemma" in the same manner, although the latter gets a little spacey in the closing seconds as the cymbals ring out underneath the echo-effected vibes.

The original album concluded with their interpretation of Spanish composer JoaquĆ­n Rodrigo's "Adagio From Concierto De Aranjuez," which was written for classical guitar and orchestra. It's an intriguing take as the familiar tune is presented through their perspective, though it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album. Would have been better paired with other classical covers.

Likely in deference to their label bosses at the time, they recorded a version of the Beatles' "Yesterday" during the Space sessions, which has preciously been unreleased. It reminds me of Vince Guaraldi.

While these are talented men, the choice and execution of the bell in some songs has me rejecting this collection, almost with an air of hostility due to how off-putting it is. But don't let that keep you from checking out other songs on Under the Jasmin Tree and Space.

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