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A Beautiful History Lesson: Milt Jackson

The MHS Review 381 Vol. 11, NO. 3 • 1987

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Spencer Bennett

Milt Jackson can play the vibraphone with such dexterity and speed that you are not aware that two simple hammers are the driving force of his sound.


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Milt Jackson can play the vibraphone with such dexterity and speed that you are not aware that two simple hammers are the driving force of his sound. This he got from his ap­prenticeship in the early years of bop with the Dizzy Gillespie band and from later work with Miles Davis. Beyond this, his phrasing is impeccable.

He builds his solos largely from melodic statements; his entrances break upon our consciousness with the impression that the music has been going on in his mind for a long time before we hear it. In the title track, a blues, Jackson swoops in with a ris­ing little theme, immediately changes his mind, drops into a lower register, and stays there for the duration. He plays it straight on the next cut, Col­eman Hawkins' "Stuffy," a tribute to the Benny Goodman Sextet and Jackson's tribute to Lionel Hampton's forceful percussive use of the vibes in ringing single lines.

The creation of an endless number of swinging phrases oscillating back and forth like a hollow brass ball in a large crystal bowl has placed Jackson in the front ranks. But there is also in his playing a highly spiritual element which makes his sound ethereal. He accomplishes this partly through the use of sustained tone clusters which hang in the aural atmosphere like grapes. The quiet sensitivity behind the beautiful rendition of Johnny Mandel's "A Time For Love" is typical of Jackson's more meditative moods and has a religious quality to it that stems from his background in gospel quartets as a young musician in Detroit.

There has been a lot of speculation among critics as to whether Milt Jackson would have been a more in­fluential and more exciting musician without his longtime involvement with the Modern Jazz Quartet. This group, through the demure and pret­ty, but often bland, compositions of the classically trained pianist John Lewis, introduced to jazz thousands who objected to the genre in less in­hibited surroundings. It has been argued that Jackson was forced to shave the edges of his hard-hitting blues patterns and was cramped by the formality of Lewis.

There may be truth to this, but the 20-odd years with the MJQ also gave Milt Jackson the ability to make tasteful disciplined transitions within a piece, an ability that many of his "post-bop" contemporaries lack. The prime example here is "If I Should Lose You," where the first chorus is legato, leisurely, and luxurious, while the second and third choruses undergo tempo changes and delicate swift shifts of improvisation, first upon the melody and then upon the changes themselves. Incidently the album title refers, I think, not to a la­ment for the aging giants on the record but to the fact that they all (Oscar Peterson, Grady Tate, Jackson, and Ray Brown) share common origins of growth and maturity in the '50s when these tunes were first becoming standards. What a beautiful history lesson this session turned out to be.

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