Years weathered together, though, are not the main justification for this five-hour-plus tribute. Pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Connie Kay and bassist Percy Heath have uniquely melded bebop and a touch for classical music into a sort of "tuxedo" jazz that no one else attempts. The MJQ could seduce the worst Bach snob into swinging, thanks to the baroque leanings of Lewis and the intelligent improvising of Jackson. Even the ever-critical Miles Davis deemed the band's "Django" to be "one of the greatest things written in a long time."
"Django" joins the other MJQ classics in this monster paean to upper-crust swing. The quartet's signature version of "Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise" shares the bill with "Skating in Central Park" and "Bag's Groove," two MJQ tunes that long ago became jazz standards. Having won the attention of boppers, the group smoothly courts the classical crowd with heady jazz interpretations of Rodrigo's Adagio From Concierto de Aranjuez, Bach's Fugue in A minor and Villa-Lobos' Bachianas Brasileiras. Cuts featuring topnotch guests like saxmen Sonny Rollins and Paul Desmond and Latin jazz/classical guitarist Laurindo Almeida remind the listener of how often the elite figures in music eagerly joined forces with this class act. MJQ 40 is jazz so good it sounds expensive.
Keep in mind that the quartet's tunes tend to ride like a Mercedes--the jolts and surges in speed are few, and usually found in the occasional orchestral crescendo. The nuances of Lewis' understated piano and Jackson's velvet vibes can easily be overlooked on low-key cuts like "For Someone I Love" and "For Ellington," especially if you're sitting through a hefty stretch of the set's 54 selections.
The casual jazzbo may find the offering too rich and instead settle for a couple of the group's 46 (!) albums. But if jazz is where you lay your bread, dole out the dollars for this penthouse suite of boxed sets. There's no topping MJQ 40 for the best of jazz with an attitude. --.
VARIOUS SPEAKERS Great Speeches of the 20th Century
There is something inherently boring about spoken-word records. Once they're separated from the people who spoke them, words often fall flat. Usually, a little spoken-word listening goes a long way.
Now there is a boxed set that may change all that. Rhino Records, the once-lowly, reissue-only label best known for such audio fodder as the ten-volume "Have A Nice Day--Super Hits of the 70's," has come up with a spoken-word set that isn't just for eggheads. In Great Speeches, Rhino has collected a fast-moving, clear-sounding, easily identifiable mass of words, many of which retain an undeniable power even today. With one bold box, Rhino has taken spoken-word records away from academia and handed them to the masses.
Great Speeches is a compendium of formal speeches, about half political, that span American history since Thomas Edison invented the recordable cylinder. In fact, the oldest recording in this set is a promotional message for Edison's then-revolutionary phonograph. Taken as a whole, Great Speeches does not trace the history of the western world so much as it illuminates the procession of quirky personalities that have shaped and at times threatened it. Most of the obvious speeches are here: FDR declaring war on Japan, Churchill's "Finest Hour" address and LBJ's tight-lipped "I will not accept the nomination of my party" farewell. But like any boxed set, it's the unexpected nuggets that make it worth the price.
Such treasures include Woodrow Wilson's 1913 "Address to the American Indians," in which he asserts in a fatherly tone that the white man's dealings with the red man "have been wise, just and beneficent." This finest moment, however, can be found in Robert Kennedy's only selection--the speech in which he announces that Martin Luther King Jr. has just been shot. Struggling to overcome his own memories of unseen gunmen, Kennedy speaks from the heart about hatred, and the emotionally crippling desire for revenge.
In terms of organization, this set could have had a clearer direction. The generic titles that producer Gordon Skene gave to each disc are unclear: "The Political Arena"; "The Changing World"; "The Dreams, the Inspirations, the Accomplishments"; and "Best of Times, Worst of Times." There are just as many political speeches on "The Changing World," for example, as there are on the CD titled "The Political Arena."
Speaking of politics, if there's a problem with this set, it's Skene's overreliance on presidential speeches. Nixon, for example, is a leitmotif. His utterings and mutterings are represented by four selections--two more than anyone else. How does a discredited, though classically flawed, president get 16 minutes, 15 seconds for his 1962 governor's race "Concession Speech," while Malcolm X's landmark "On Black Power" speech is condensed to 1 minute, 16 seconds; Alan Freed's goodbye to his fans reduced to 25 seconds; and Chicago Mayor Richard Daley's explanation of his police force's violent behavior at the 1968 Democratic Convention compressed to 17 measly seconds? Aren't these personalities and issues more important than Nixon's paranoid ramblings?