This is the type of album that led many bop purists to criticize the Modern Jazz Quartet (and John Lewis in particular) for being overly influenced by Western classical music. This album has seven of Lewis' compositions, episodic works arranged in a suite that portrays characters from a fictional Italian comedy based in the 1500s. Singer Diahann Carroll guests fairly effectively on "La Cantatrice." Despite being tied to a story, there are some strong improvisations from pianist Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson on this unusual material. The release is in my opinion as essential as Third Steam from MJQ. To listen to "The Comedy" is totally mesmerizing, this was and remains a tour de force in their canon. And should be cataloged in every serious jazz library, such as the one your building.
1 Spanish Steps
5 La Cantatrice
7 Piazza Navona
John Lewis - Piano
Milt Jackson - Vibes
Connie Kay - Drums
Percy Heath - Bass
Special Guest: Diahann Carroll on La Cantatrice
Recorded 1962 of the Atlantic Label and is catalog number 1390.
Five Big Stars!! The MJQ is FABULOUS! Seldom has a 'Concept' jazz work been so successful. John Lewis' fascination with the very distinctive individual characters of the 16th century 'Commedia Dell'Arte' is translated into an artful AND hard swinging character sketch of five of them. In addition, there are two lavish jazz landscapes' (tracks 1 and 7). Lewis fashioned some very elegant 'heads' and 'closings' for each song, but the MJQ swings hard in between. If Milt Jackson's vibraharp is involved, you just know that things will soon be 'swinging with funk' no matter what the subject matter. Bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay are bedrock timekeepers of the first water. John Lewis' very personal pianistic distillation of Count Basie is a wonder of economy, cunning, and improvisation. I don't consider "The Comedy" to be a true Third Stream effort, but a preceding MJQ composition "Fontessa" was the interlacing of fugues (1st stream: classical) and swing (2nd stream: jazz), yielding the Third Stream.
Note how this begins and ends with a few bars from "Fontessa", linking that composition with this one. The 'Pieces D'Resistance' begin with a wonderful whirlwind "Spanish Steps" that has a very formal and intricate shapeshifting ensemble head that gives way to great individual solos. Lewis gets off a 'killer' piano solo that teleports us from Italy to the middle of a New Orleans funeral march and back again. Diahann Carroll's cameo on the woeful tale of the stand-in, "La Cantatrice" (The Female Singer"), is just flat out splendid, with the song going from formal to very hip and back again on the strength of Ms Carroll's considerable abilities. But for me the very best tracks begin with "Columbine", describing a foxy Italian lady. It shimmers and swings with a remarkable John Lewis piano solo that is simply elegant, bluesy, and earthy.
But "Pulcinella" (basically Punch) wins the prize as the total embodiment of the MJQ: it's a triumph of ensemble playing with long passages of shifting dynamics and tempos, with a blazing Milt Jackson getting off his best solo, the ensemble flying along pell-mell, and Lewis demonstrating how to maximize the effect of a short solo. "Pulcinella" is one of the best MJQ performances EVER. Five big stars for the MJQ's conceptal jazz explorations of the Commedia characters and landscape. Five Stars for John Lewis' conception, compositions, and arrangements. This is a truly wonderful, timeless jazz. Highly recommended. Five Big Overall Stars!!
To find a truly playable copy of this some 50 years later doen the road is no mean feat. This is a total joy from opening track to last track.
(BTW, the ornate, beautiful original vinyl LP album cover with Harlequin on the front, and Colombine and Pierrot on the back, won a prize as one of the best of the year of issue.)
Vinyl Plays completely, very low surface noise and vinyl is housed in archive protective inner sleeve. Jacket is in great condition, very minor edge wear, no split seams, no bar code.
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