Saturday, November 29, 2008

Under the Jasmin Tree / Space: What You Have to Deal With

It's the Modern Jazz Quartet all right. Couldn't possibly be anyone else. But listening to this period it's impossible to imagine that this is the MJQ recorded, as they usually seemed to be, in a vacuum. The connections with the times, the place, the people and the record label cannot be divorced from what they were recording. Even if it's all in my imagination.

Thus, I hear in Under the Jasmin Tree's opening track 'Blue Necklace' a merging of the MJQ's classic sound with a psychedelic underpinning, particularly when Milt Jackson's vibes collapse into themselves twenty-one seconds into the piece and then again a few seconds later, Connie Kay's drums pounding gently yet in an uncharacteristically tribal manner. John Lewis and Percy Heath remain restrained, which, far from harming the number, manages to give it a nice tension as both factions fight for control, albeit as delicately as possible. The fact that Lewis and Jackson weren't on the exact same page was nothing new to the MJQ but where else could one find such a subtle power struggle? On Django? Conchorde? Even if this battle is entirely the product of my own imagination it's an alluring proposition for such a contemplative ensemble, particularly considering the parallel struggle occurring at the same time with their bosses Lennon and McCartney.

Reigned in by Lewis, Under the Jasmin Tree nonetheless remains mostly free of sixties rock clichés (uncharitably, one could argue that they instead were happy to partake in their own clichés). 'Three Little Feelings' is a suite in the tradition of Django's 'La Ronde Suite', the sort of thing Lewis in particular excelled at. The title track which closes out the album, however, is about as raucous as you'll ever hear the MJQ sound, further proof they slice their way through a good pop song as well as anyone.

Space, from early 1969, ups the psychedelia factor a touch more and, ironically, from the unlikeliest of sources: John Lewis! Whereas the Van Heusen-Burke standard 'Here's that Rainy Day' returns the MJQ to their fetish for Gershwin and Broadway and 'Adagio from Concierto de Aranjuez' explores third wave beautifully, it is the Lewis originals, 'Visitor from Mars' and 'Visitor from Venus', that have them grasping at space rock and raga like never before. Just as warring factions Lennon and McCartney conceived a veneer of unity on Abbey Road from the same year, these tracks display a coalescence of the MJQ's wild cards and their more sedate counterparts. Jackson and Lewis no longer sound like they're battling for control over their group's direction but in complete agreement - for the time being. The remainder of the album acts to remind us that this psychedelic direction was nothing more than a passing fancy, just as it had been for the Beatles themselves.

(Interestingly enough, The Beatles' Anthology series fails to mention the premiere outfit they signed, either an indication of how little jazz music meant to the Fab Four or simply a careless oversight on the part of the producers. Or perhaps a bit of both. Nevertheless, there's something oddly appropriate in ignoring the MJQ. Whereas Badfinger and Mary Hopkin needed the Beatle association (but struggled to escape it), John Lewis and co didn't then and don't now. The mere fact they were signed to Apple seems like an afterthought - not unlike James Taylor, the only other act on the label who managed to carve out a career that didn't need the Beatles connection)

I want to think that being signed to Apple was merely incidental and that the MJQ would've delivered the same albums had they been signed to Atlantic at the time. But I cannot. Tied to the most influential act of the decade and their oh so hip record company, I can't fathom them performing without. But it's equally impossible to imagine anyone else recording these albums. This is, after-all, the MJQ.

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