Tuesday, December 30, 2008
Walter Perkins' MJT+3/Make Everybody Happy: Slipping Through the Cracks
As of late, my jazz collection has come to include artists bereft of fame. Not obscurities procured after a late night club gig, no, but individuals and groups lacking in notoriety and success nonetheless. Buddy DeFranco's conspicuous status as a minor figure is understandable considering he played the distinctly sexless clarinet but what about the MJT+3? How did a unit with such an abundance of talent manage to avoid even a cursory mention in jazz historiography?
Well, their bizarre, Modern Jazz Quartet-aping name certainly does them no favours particularly when it's impossible to figure out what it actually means.* Jazz units have never been particularly well-named and I've often wondered how much that contributes to their relative lack of success. Then, there's their label, the hapless Vee Jay who managed to flirt with some nice signings in blues, jazz and rock but ceaselessly bled money (how they went bankrupt following their fluke gold strike with The Beatles defies logic). But the biggest factor of all is the MJT+3 themselves and their inability to decide on which path to follow. Their indecision makes for frequently fascinating listening but the corollary is that they aren't even a footnote.
A brief introduction, Walter Perkins' MJT+3 acts as bonus tracks in advance to the more substantive and distinctive Make Everybody Happy. The lounge credentials of the musicians are well documented on the former but there are occasional hints that they yearn to break away from their roots and pound out some serious hard bop, particularly on the penultimate track, Harold Mabren's 'Rochelle'. Elsewhere, the playing is solid enough but largely forgettable, relieved only by some sporadically inspired playing from the quintet. But it is Willie Thomas' trumpet solo on 'Whiffenproof Song' that is the undoubted highlight of this set: his playing is at a such a high pitch that it's too much for the microphone enabling some unexpected distortion and left on the CD reissue either due to shoddy remastering or because I am not the only one who appreciates such a jarring moment.
Make Everybody Happy is, in my own opinion, named for the group's valiant attempt at merging their own creative desires with Vee Jay's desire to cash-in. The very fact that it didn't make anyone happy at the time is now beside the point but indicates that they weren't far off from attracting an audience. It's possible, however, that any potential audience may have been turned off by the reverential playing. The polar opposite of its predecessor, this is the sound of a hard bop unit exploring lounge music, though much more successfully. As it was in my Young Lions review, Frank Strozier continues to demonstrate that he was one of the most accomplished - albeit forgotten - sax stars of the era. But while Coleman, Coltrane, Rollins and the like were established leaders given lisense to go full throttle, the less renowned Strozier was stuck within the confines of a group setting. His extended solo on 'The Trolley Song' is a tour de force history of bop, cool and hard bop, distinctive only in that he managed to sound like everyone before him. On an instrument as maddeningly individual the sax, it's nice to hear someone playing with a nod to tradition. But that's probably not the way it was heard then or, as it were, not heard.
* So close is the MJQ connection that it's all that allmusic can bring itself to mention on the group's behalf - and this is generous considering Wikipedia doesn't even have an MJT+3 entry.