Milt Jackson – Ballads & Blues – Atlantic Records ATLANTIC 1242 (1956)/Speakers Corner (2019) 180-gram mono vinyl, 42:02 ****1/2:
Many of the jazz elite are known by a moniker or nickname. “Fats”, “Trane”, “Mash”, “Fatha”, “Newk” and “Lady Day” are members of jazz royalty who earned this honor. Then, there is “Bags”, better known as Milt Jackson. The legendary vibraphonist performed in various jazz sub-genres, including bebop, hard bop, modal and post-bop. His instrumental prowess was strongly associated with his harmonic and rhythm swing patterns. Jackson was noted for a lower-end vibraphone oscillator (3.3 revolutions/second) and tremolo sustains. His early career included stints with Dizzy Gillespie, Woody Herman, Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker. Jackson may be remembered as a founding member of the Modern Jazz Quartet. The “prime” lineup included pianist John Lewis, bassist Percy Heath (who replaced Ray Brown) and drummer Kenny Clarke. MJQ (with some lineup adjustments) recorded intermittently for four decades. Additionally, Jackson enjoyed success as a band leader, and collaborated with fellow legends Ray Charles, Coleman Hawkins, John Coltrane, Wes Montgomery, Oscar Peterson, Hank Mobley, Miles Davis, Hubert Laws and Stanley Turrentine (among many others). His indelible mark on jazz is transcendental.
Speakers Corner has released a 180-gram vinyl of the 1956 album, Milt Jackson – Ballads & Blues. This vintage recording, mixed by Rudy Van Gelder was one of many high points for Atlantic Records. Joining “Bags: is the his band mates from MJQ (Lewis, Heath and Clarke) with tenor saxophonist Lucky Thompson. Additionally, three guitarists (Barney Kessler, Barry Galbraith, Skeeter Best) with jazz veterans Oscar Pettiford (double bass) and Lawrence Marable rounded out the session. Side A opens with a Cole Porter composition from his Broadway play, Kiss Me Kate. Popularized by Patti Page in 1949, Jackson distills the minor-key moodiness with his crisp vibraphone runs. There is an effective reed accompaniment (arranged by Ralph Burns). Lewis, Pettiford and Clarke form a seamless, gently-flowing rhythm section. “These Foolish Things” (a staple of Billie Holiday’s repertoire), begins with Barney Kessel’s laid-back guitar licks. Jackson’s active notation dances around the melody. When the jam takes an expected uptick in tempo, it becomes a classic “Bags” swing number, ear-catching and spontaneous.
Reaching into The Great American Songbook, Duke Ellington’s bluesy reverie, “Solitude” is arranged with meticulous detail. Jackson plays around John Lewis’ signature minimal “Ellington-esque” piano solo. The reed section is a nice counterpoint, emphasizing the steady, processional build of this jazz composer. Switching gears, “The Song Is Ended” is pure, unadulterated swing. Jackson’s soloing is breathless in technical proficiency and rhythmic prominence. Kessel’s run is articulate and the subtle brush work (Marable) adds another texture. Jerome Kern’s perennial stage and movie standard, “They Didn’t Believe Me” is a ballad with a pulse. Jackson’s first solo is set against the guitar, while Lewis’ understated passage is framed by the reed section.
Amazingly, Side B gets even better. “How High The Moon” originated in a 1940 broadway revue, but subsequent covers (Benny Goodman, Ella Fitzgerald and especially Les Paul/Mary Ford) made it a part of jazz history. Easing into a wistful ballad mode, Jackson’s fierce notation is complemented by Pettiford’s graceful bowed double bass. Then in classic Milt Jackson mode, the quartet transitions to swing. Lewis, Pettiford and Clarke are dialed in as a cool jazz ensemble. Adding the mellifluous tenor saxophone of Lucky Thompson raises the bar. Milt backs off during the tenor and double bass solo, as Lewis offers another thoughtful, agile run. “Bags” closes it out with a glowing echo. On “Gerry’s Blues” a straight ahead bop-infused arrangement features another deft Kessel guitar solo. This may be the bluesiest jam on the album. Slowing things down, “Hello” is a slow dance meditation. Jackson and Thompson have a distinct melodic feel for each other that is influenced by the chord progressions. The finale, “Bright Blues” is hard driving as Thompson joins for a third number. Clarke, Pettiford, Lewis, Thompson and the brilliant vibraphonist are in a tight pocket. Their nuanced chemistry is flawless, and the call and response between saxophone and vibraphone is uplifting. Of course, there is a big finish.
Speakers Corner has done an exemplary job in re-mastering Ballads & Blues to audiophile vinyl. Van Gelder’s pristine source engineering is maintained with integrity. Jackson’s diverse vibraphone tonality is captured with both clean precision and glowing warmth. The mono mix is blended without unnecessary density.
Milt Jackson – vibraphone; Lucky Thompson – tenor saxophone; Barney Kessler – guitar; Barry Galbraith – guitar; Skeeter Best – guitar; Oscar Pettiford – double bass; Percy Heath – double bass; Kenny Clarke – drums; Lawrence Marable – drums
So In Love
These Foolish Things
The Song Is Ended;
They Didn’t Believe Me
How High The Moon