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THE MODERN JAZZ SOCIETY (Verve 314 559 827-2) [1955]

THE GOLDEN STRIKER [1960] + JAZZ ABSTRACTIONS (Collectables COL-CD-6252) [1961]

John Lewis is better known as the pianist and “musical director” of the famed Modern Jazz Quartet, but in the ’50s and early ’60s he was equally active in the experimental and “Third Stream” jazz of the day, as a composer, performer, and producer. Two of the three albums listed above showcase his work as a composer, but the third, JAZZ ABSTRACTIONS, uses his name as a front man: “John Lewis Presents Contemporary Music” in what was intended to be the first volume of several, this one presenting “Compositions by Gunther Schuller & Jim Hall.” (But there was no volume two as such.) The Modern Jazz Society was founded by John Lewis in 1955 to present concerts in New York City, “featuring twentieth-century and earlier classical music (Luigi Nono and Mozart, for example) as well as compositions by John and specially commissioned works by others (such as J. J. Johnson, Jimmy Giuffre, and [Gunther Schuller]),” as Schuller points out in his notes for the CD reissue of THE MODERN JAZZ SOCIETY.   A year later the Society “was expanded to the Jazz and Classical Music Society.”   Under that name it presented MUSIC FOR BRASS (Columbia Records) in 1956 – now available on CD as part of THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM, reviewed elsewhere here.


On March 14, 1955, Lewis assembled a small orchestra of musicians and led them through two rehearsal and recording sessions in that one day – two days after the death of Charlie Parker and just as the news was beginning to circulate. Schuller says, “We were all stunned by this incredible news; he was, after all, a musical hero and inspiring mentor to all of us.” The nine-piece group recorded five of Lewis’s compositions, all but one new and never before heard.

The full title of the original Norgran album (subsequently reissued with a different cover on the Verve label – both labels were owned by jazz impresario Norman Granz) was “THE MODERN JAZZ SOCIETY Presents A Concert of Contemporary Music.” The music was performed (with minimal rehearsal) by an orchestra made up of a trombone (J.J. Johnson), French horn (Schuller), flute (James Politis), clarinet (Aaron Sachs or Tony Scott – the latter originally credited for contractual reasons as “Anthony Sciacca,” his real name), tenor sax (Lucky Thompson or Stan Getz), bassoon (Manuel Zegler), harp (Janet Putnam), bass (Percy Heath), and drums (Connie Kay).   John Lewis was the arranger of three of the pieces; Schuller arranged the other two. Lewis, a pianist, did not play on the recorded session, but did on some of the rehearsals.   Heath and Kay were fellow members of the Modern Jazz Quartet.


The sound produced by this group was light, almost ethereal – making significant use of the harp, both as a solo instrument and as a substitute rhythm guitar – almost Debussy-like in its use of pastel coloration. The compositions were among Lewis’s best: “Little David’s Fugue,” “The Queen’s Fancy,” “Midsommer,” “Sun Dance,” and “Django,” which had first been performed by the MJQ and is now a modern jazz standard.  

Lewis had attended the Manhattan School of Music for three years, starting in 1950, and “became particularly fascinated with the music of Johann Sebastian Bach and the fugal and polyphonic writing of the eighteenth century,” as Schuller notes.   The music on this album reflects that fascination, but never loses its jazz feel, a considerable accomplishment on Lewis’s part. The melodies are both rich and sophisticated, and – more important – the soloists rise with it to new heights.   This is nowhere more evident than in Lucky Thompson’s tenor sax solos. Stan Getz had the bigger name then among tenor sax players, but Thompson utterly cuts him.

“Lucky” Thompson was called that because he was, throughout his career, amazingly unlucky. For years an expatriate living in France, he returned to the U.S., as Bud Powell had, in the ’50s, and he made a few albums of his own, but they were disappointing. He shined most on others’ albums, like Miles Davis’ 1954 Prestige album, WALKIN’ – and on THE MODERN JAZZ SOCIETY – rising above the level of “sideman” with his unique interpretations of others’ music. Thompson was a very melodic soloist, but uniquely oblique in the way he phrased his solos. He played notes in sequences no one else could approach, suggesting the melody almost by implication. The sophistication of his solos here impresses me each and every time I listen to them – but so also does his soulfulness.   Thompson is the star performer here, albeit surrounded by major musicians as well. Getz’s leads (on two of the five pieces) pale into near-anonymity in comparison.

When I discovered this album in 1956 I was overjoyed with it and played it frequently – so much so that when the Verve edition was released a few years later (Granz had consolidated his Clef and Norgran labels into Verve, reissuing a number of albums on that label), I bought a copy to replace the worn-out record. (Down Beat awarded the album five stars, its highest rating.) So I was pleased when it was finally released on CD in 1999.

The sequencing of material on the CD is different from that of the LP (which had “Midsommer” and “Little David’s Fugue” on side one and “The Queen’s Fancy,” “Django” and “Sun Dance” in that order on side two). “Tracks appear in the sequence preferred by Lewis and Schuller,” we are told and I find their choice completely acceptable.   More important, the CD is longer than the original album, containing three “bonus tracks” which add around 17 minutes of music.

Two of the new tracks are recorded rehearsals of “Midsommer” and “The Queen’s Fancy,” and Lewis plays piano on the latter – unlike the ultimate version. They offer a chance to hear the musicians coming to terms with the music, but include recording glitches and are effectively postscripts to the album.   But the third track is J. J. Johnson’s “Turnpike,” a piece which has never been recorded again.

In my review of THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM, I said of Johnson, “But the surprise was J. J. Johnson’s ‘Poem For Brass.’ Johnson was a trombonist and by then had achieved success as one half of ‘J. J. & Kai,’ with trombonist Kai Winding. … He was known as a solid but relatively unadventurous performer in the mainstream of post-bop jazz and his composition – probably the best on the album – came as a real surprise and a major accomplishment. (He’s never done anything like it since then, more’s the pity.) Full-bodied and built on an intimate working relationship with the brass instruments, Johnson’s piece, like Schuller’s, truly exploits the capabilities of a brass orchestra.” I had not then heard “Turnpike,” which is a kind of ‘missing link.’

In his notes for the CD, Schuller says that “Turnpike” “was initially scheduled to be released along with Lewis’s five compositions, but it exists here only in a rehearsal run-through from the afternoon session. Why it was not accorded another take is a mystery. Neither John nor J.J. nor I can recall what happened. Possibly we ran out of time. … Perhaps we all felt that the piece wasn’t quite ready to be recorded.   Or perhaps Granz decided that J.J.’s piece would not have fit on the LP, duration-wise.” In its rehearsal form (with a false start included), it runs only 5:08, and obviously would have fit, “duration-wise,” on the short (around 30 minutes) LP. The piece lacks the coherency of “Poem For Brass,” and includes a number of by-then standard bop riffs, so I’m inclined to guess that “the piece wasn’t quite ready to be recorded.” Nor, apparently, was it ever; Johnson moved on and “Turnpike” was left behind.

The inclusion of “Turnpike” enhances this CD version of the original album.   Other aspects of the release do not.   While the CD is a “high-resolution, 96 kHz, 24-bit digital transfer,” it is also a “limited edition – only 6,000 copies pressed worldwide,” a Verve Elite Edition “available only until the first pressing is sold out.” As such, it may already be hard to find.   Additionally, despite the fancy packaging (including a reproduction of the original record label), there is an amazing glitch in the booklet containing Gunther Schuller’s extensive notes:   the third page of the booklet’s notes is actually a replication of the first, and the real third page is omitted, leaving a huge gap in Schuller’s description of the music and how it was recorded that encompasses the entire original recording.   Since this is a single, limited-edition release, there is no hope that this error will be rectified in subsequent editions. That’s a genuine pity, since Schuller brings both first-hand knowledge of the recording and considerable insight into the music on this album.

In 1958 John Lewis released his second album of compositions, EUROPEAN WINDOWS, this time for RCA Victor (LPM-1742), with members of the Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra and featuring as solists Lewis himself and Gerry Weinkopf (a Czech flautist) and Ronnie Ross (a British baritone saxophonist). The album featured two of the compositions from MODERN JAZZ SOCIETY, “Midsommer” and “The Queen’s Fancy,” plus four others of equal stature. This album has yet to be released on CD, and I’m not holding my breath waiting for it. It received mixed reviews, but was a worthy successor to MODERN JAZZ SOCIETY.


Despite the increasing role the Modern Jazz Quartet was playing in his life – making albums and recording film scores and topping out the jazz polls every year – Lewis continued to work on separate solo projects, and the next was The Golden Striker Music for Brass and Piano, this time for the MJQ’s label, Atlantic Records, in 1960 (SD-1334). The album is a clear sequel to Lewis’s “Three Little Feelings” which I described in my review of THE BIRTH OF THE THIRD STREAM as “typical of his elegant works of the time,” and which had originally appeared on the Columbia album, MUSIC FOR BRASS.


The 14-piece orchestra Lewis had assembled featured four French horns (one of them played by Gunther Schuller), four trumpets, two trombones and a tuba, in addition to piano (Lewis), bass and drums. The album contained 10 compositions, four of them short (less than one minute long) “Fanfare”s which more or less bookended the other six. Most of the compositions reflected Lewis’s continuing fascination with Italian commedia dell’arte, first revealed on the MJQ’s first Atlantic album, FONTESSA (Atlantic 1231) – but one is “Odds Against Tomorrow,” originally part of the MJQ soundtrack album PATTERNS, from the film Odds Against Tomorrow, and here significantly re-arranged.


The album whets my appetite for more “music for brass,” but, alas, that album was Lewis’s final foray into brass territory, and no one else has tried it since.

However, the Third Stream movement was growing, and Atlantic next released THIRD STREAM MUSIC/THE MODERN JAZZ QUARTET & GUESTS: THE JIMMY GIUFFRE THREE & THE BEAUX ARTS STRING QUARTET (SD-1345). This album included three compositions by Lewis and one each by Jimmy Giuffre and Gunther Schuller. Nominally a MJQ album, augmented on different tracks by the Giuffre Three, the Beaux Arts String Quartet and a six-piece chamber group (clarinet, flute, bassoon, French horn, cello and harp), this is another album which has never been released on CD but should be: it’s another piece in the overall mosaic of Third Stream music.

Atlantic next released JAZZ ABSTRACTIONS (SD-1365) in 1961. This album is largely devoted to the compositions of Gunther Schuller (three of the four), plus Jim Hall’s “Piece for Guitar & Strings.” 


Hall was an original member of the Chico Hamilton Quintet (reviewed elsewhere here) who, after Hamilton, had been a part of the original Jimmy Giuffre Three (also reviewed elsewhere) – a sax/clarinet, guitar and bass trio. He wrote relatively little ambitious music, and his contribution here is identified as “his first opus.” The piece makes use of an augmented string quartet (the Contemporary String Quartet + a second viola and bass) plus Hall’s guitar and is notable for the lack of drums. In his original notes for the album, Schuller states, “In essence jazz feeling and inflection are implied rather than directly stated, much in the manner of the Giuffre Three.” He adds that the bass shifts “occasionally from [its] traditional jazz role of ‘timekeeper’ to become a full part of the bowed ensemble.”

Two of Schuller’s compositions feature Ornette Coleman, then a rising star of the jazz avant garde, whose approach was intuitive and improvisational, but whom Schuller fitted nicely into his works. He appears first on “Abstraction,” which Schuller says “is an attempt to bring together the most advanced stylistic manifestations of both jazz and ‘classical’ music, on the assumption that there are by now enough basic similarities to warrant such a fusion.”   (This may be the first use of the term “fusion” in a jazz context.) Schuller believed “there are many parallels between the playing of Ornette Coleman and so-called serial music, parallels which ‘Abstraction’ tries to isolate and underscore.” The piece is set up for Coleman to improvise (on his white plastic alto sax) over a composed background.   “In the initial rehearsals, Ornette listened about four times to the composed background, and only when he felt he had understood its pulse and color, its varying tensions, did he begin to play with us.”   The piece uses Hall’s guitar, two basses, drums, and the Contemporary String Quartet, in addition to Coleman’s sax, and is both dense and ferocious.

Coleman also plays on the side-long Schuller composition, “Variants On A Theme of Thelonious Monk (Criss-Cross)” – a piece in four movements or “Variant”s – along with another rising star, Eric Dolphy, who is heard on bass clarinet, alto sax and flute. Dolphy and Coleman had just recorded the double-quartet album, FREE JAZZ, together (it was released as Atlantic SD 1364, immediately before JAZZ ABSTRACTIONS), itself an epochal album, albeit wholly different in nature (the most freely improvised album ever made at that time).

And Dolphy also appears, solely on flute, on “Variants On A Theme of John Lewis (Django).” Both of these Schuller works were effectively deconstructions of two relatively well-known jazz works, John Lewis’s “Django” and Thelonious Monk’s “Criss-Cross.”   The original pieces are treated as “themes” and subject to “variations” in the classical manner. Of “Criss-Cross,” Schuller states, “‘Criss-Cross’ is one of the classics of jazz literature. To an extent never achieved before (except perhaps by Duke Ellington), it showed that jazz was capable of producing more than mere ‘tunes.’ ‘Criss-Cross’ is a composition for instruments, meant to be heard, not danced or sung to.   Brief though it may be, it is as complete in its concise statement and development of a given motive as a Scarlatti sonata or a Haydn quartet movement. I have long wanted to pay homage to this unique piece and its composer by basing a series of variations on it.”

What impresses me, hearing this music again almost 40 years later, is how undated it sounds. Schuller’s 12-tone approach to music is invigorated by Coleman, Dolphy, and the other jazz musicians involved (the album is dedicated to bassist Scott LaFaro, who was killed in a car accident only a few months after making this album and before its release). They bring a genuinely exciting jazz vitality to the music, taking what might otherwise have been academic and mannered music and adding a strongly visceral quality to it.   Both Ornette and Eric unleashed a jazz fury, bringing Third Stream music into what was then the immediate present. This is the album’s major accomplishment: the music is not “polite” but intensely alive.

Both THE GOLDEN STRIKER and JAZZ ABSTRACTIONS have been issued on a single CD by the Collectables label. (Yes, I know: “collectibles” is not spelled with an ‘a’ but for some reason this label spells it that way.) This label has produced a number of uneven CDs, most of them pairing two LPs on one CD.   They have re-released a number of Atlantic jazz albums in this fashion, but some of their pairings are rather odd – like Jimmy Giuffre’s THE MUSIC MAN with a vocal album by Mabel Mercer – and don’t seem to reflect much thought or consideration. For example, although both of these albums are presented as the work of John Lewis, they are very little alike and indeed present a considerable contrast with each other: the shift from THE GOLDEN STRIKER to JAZZ ABSTRACTIONS is abrupt and perhaps jarring for the listener. And Lewis’s role in JAZZ ABSTRACTIONS is as minimal as you can get. But their packaging does include the original liner notes (in tiny type) and full personnel listings.   This CD runs 71½ minutes, which makes it an excellent bargain.


If you have an interest in the ambitious jazz of the ’50s – the apex of ambitious jazz – these albums are highly recommended.

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