Blue Note Records’ celestial compilation album, Wizard of the Vibes, pairing of virtuosic vibraphonist, Milt “Bags” Jackson coupled with the high priest of the keys, Thelonious Monk, is nothing short of musical magic. The aptly titled recording attests to the musical wizardry emblematic of this bonding of varying styles. Brewing in a cauldron of mesmerizing sounds Wizard of the Vibes display the beauty, clarity, and soothing grace of Milt Jackson’s nimble rattling of the bones juxtaposed with the spatial complexity signature to Monk’s revered chops. Jackson’s mallets model the sorcerer’s wand casting a spell over the bars of his instrument of choice to massage the minds of all in earshot, while Monk’s anointed fingers unlock the blessings of sound emanating from all 88 keys. Laden with an abundance of melodic, bluesy ballads like the elegant “Lillie” and swinging, bop selections like “On the Scene” and “What’s New” reveal the backbone of Jackson’s musical integrity as a founding member of The Modern Jazz Quartet. It is this inventiveness, improvisation, and innovation radiating from these two titans of jazz that make Wizard of the Vibes such an enchanting recording.

The album, a compilation of session work by The Modern Jazz Quartet and The Thelonious Monk Quintet, experienced several face lifts from the first Blue Note release in 1952 sans Monk, to the 1956 release featuring Thelonious Monk Quintet recordings from 1948, eventually adding 5 new tracks to the 1989 release and ultimately settling on a final compilation set in 2001. Many of the 1951 Monk sessions were added to Monk’s Genius of Modern Music: Volume 2 of which Milt Jackson contributed a heavy portion of his anointed vibraphone offerings.

Although Monk’s popularity, well-deserved and worthy of canon status, is more widely held in the popular space of music recognition, lest we not forget it was Jackson that formed The Modern Jazz Quartet, a super group of game changing musicians that played a crucial role in ushering in and elevating bebop, swing, cool jazz, and blues tinged jazz. Emerging from Dizzy Gillespie’s band, Jackson is accompanied by pianist, John Lewis, bebop ride cymbal innovating drummer, Kenny Clarke, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer, Connie Kay who round out the members. The Modern Jazz Quartet influence to Wizard of the Vibes is noticeable in the first nine of seventeen tracks, which are a mixture of standards including the Duke Ellington composition “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore” as well as multiple Jackson compositions, while the remaining eight tracks are superb Monk-Jackson duets. Both halves exhibit significant individual power and while Jackson’s recordings without Monk can essentially stand alone, one listen to the Monk penned “Misterioso,” in which Jackson lends his steady vibes, and you witness the mastery of their union and pay gratitude to Blue Note for the production and the visually stunning cover art to boot.

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Sonically, the tandem is a strikingly fluid match as Monk’s trademark, unorthodox percussive approach compliments Jackson’s golden touch on the vibes. Monk’s gifted fingers and Jackson’s precise mallets are these artists’ paintbrushes dipped in the rich, colorful textures blended by their vivid musical minds and expressed on the canvass of Milt’s blues and Monk’s abstract melodies. In contrast, though many selections denote the harmonious agreement of the duo’s sound, the essence of Monk and Milt is the marriage of two distinctly differing sounds living in the same house, providing for one another without any argument of selfishness that befalls many unions. For example, the Monk composition, “Evidence” is resounding proof that highlights Jackson’s rhythm that calms Monks distortion and Monk’s dissonance that lends edginess to Jackson’s gliding love taps.

Together, Monk and Jackson put their stamp on the Jerome Kern composed, Oscar Hammerstein II written jazz standard, “All the Things You Are.” A favorite among bebop players for its formidable chord progression, the tune was given legs by big band impresario, Artie Shaw, pianist, Art Tatum, and then brought to its zenith by bebop ambassador, Charlie “Bird” Parker. Accompanied by the smooth, crooning vocals of Kenny “Pancho” Hagood, their lushly romantic arrangement accompanies the other versions worthy to duplicate the revered standard.

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Thematically, theirs is a magical marriage that is complex, creative, and emergent throughout the recordings. From the swing heavy “Bag’s Groove” featuring Lou Donaldson on saxophone to Monk’s recognizable play imprinted on “Epistrophy” with accompaniment by Jackson, the music maintains its allure as you hope to hear any new tricks that could be pulled out of their hat, while abounding with the special affection, respect, and mutual admiration that has made the Monk and Jackson partnership affirmation of the immense devotion of this musical relationship captured on wax.

Buy Wizard of the Vibes HERE

Words by Johnathan Eaglin

 

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