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The Modern Jazz Quartet - Fontessa

Cover Critique: A simple sketch that makes Fontessa look like a musical theater piece based on an Italian comedy of the 16th century. I have looked it up and the word/name Fontessa does not appear to be an allusion to anything. Intriguing, wonderful cover with a strategic use of the colour red. Four and a half stars.

Track Listing:

Angel Eyes
Over the Rainbow
Willow Weep for Me
Woodyn You

“Modern jazz” in 1956 meant a lot of different things. Charles Mingus believed it meant tone poems played by ear. Stan Kenton’s faith remained unshakably directed at the orchestra. But the most playful answer lay in Fontessa, one of the major albums by The Modern Jazz Quartet. Their answer: vibes.

The Modern Jazz Quartet started out as a side project within Dizzy Gillespie’s big band. John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Ray Brown (double bass) and Kenny Clarke (drums) would perform short sets when the main brass needed a rest. They went solo out of a desire for more complexity, becoming an early proponent of chamber jazz. In contrast to bebop ensembles, which put emphasis on the solos, the Quartet went for a refined, modulated sound with equal emphasis on all players. By 1955 Brown and Clarke had been replaced on their respective instruments by Percy Heath and Connie Kay and the group was stabilized.

There are times when I believe chamber jazz is in fact my favorite style of jazz – with its subtle emotional palette and harmonics, it is tidier than most other jazz genres and yet more adventurous than its classical cousin. What you have with Fontessa is a unique sound and that’s always something to prize. The piano, vibraphone and percussion play off each other and form the basis for an effervescent brew whose compositions range from the hushed, wistful mood of ‘Angel Eyes’ to the quirky fun of ‘Woodyn You.’ As for the titular piece, it earns every one of its eleven minutes, easing its way from somber, Bach-fused church mimicry to a slow, cool swing number. Lewis gets plenty of time in the spotlight and for his drum solo (bless his heart) Connie Kay makes expressive use out of the cymbals. It’s a thing of beauty all around.

The only misstep on this ode to playful sophistication is an inexplicable cover of ‘Over the Rainbow.’ This was a reasonably good Harold Arlen song which Judy Garland sang very nicely during the best part of the film – but the film was The Wizard of Oz and ‘Over the Rainbow’ has no more place on a serious jazz album than ‘We’re Off to See the Wizard.’ Surgically remove that gaffe and Fontessa could be perfection. I’m forced to dock a point but the damage is minimal. Just skip the track.

This then is the most elegant offering of 1956 and a top contender among the jazz albums of the year. The aesthetic is nowhere near as challenging as that of Charles Mingus or Stan Kenton but it has the benefit of not emptying the room when you listen to it. Fontessa is beautiful and stylish, putting it (like the work of Chico Hamilton) in an entirely different mood category to most jazz.

Best Track: Fontessa.

Worst Track: Over the Rainbow.

Rating: Four and a half stars.