Wednesday, January 18, 2017

MJT+3 [1957-62]

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

If a generation is twenty years, then the recordings by the MJT+3 can be said to span three of them, yet they sound as fresh today as when they were first recorded over 60 years ago.

MJT+3 [1957-62] (Modern Jazz Two + 3) recorded several LPs for the Vee Jay label which, according to Jazz historian Noal Cohen, “... in hindsight, reveal the ensemble to be one of the most innovative of the many hard bop working bands of the late 1950s.”

Drummer Walter Perkins and bassist Bob Cranshaw are the founding members of the Modern Jazz Two +3. The group was formed in Chicago in 1957 and disbanded in 1962 after it moved to New York.

“Perkins’ drumming is notable for its drive and swing; he plays to support the soloist rather than to display his own technique.”  J. Kent Williams writing in The New Grove Encyclopedia of Jazz, Barry Kernfeld, ed.].

The other members of the group were pianist Harold Mabern, who as a composer is “noted for his melodic gifts” [Paul Rinzler], trumpeter Willie Thomas, who performed with many Jazz notables over the course of his long career including the Slide Hampton Octet, Woody Herman’s big band, the Al Belletto Sextet and vocalists Peggy Lee and Bill Henderson [he is also a distinguished Jazz educator, and alto saxophonist Frank Strozier.

On his Jazz History Website, Noal Cohen, who is also Frank Strozier’s discographer offers these observations about him:

“Influenced by both Charlie Parker and Lee Konitz, Strozier emerged in the late 1950s as the archetypal hard bop alto saxophonist. His playing was fluid, hard swinging and emotional and his solos beautifully constructed. Gifted with a recognizable sound and conception and an ability to constantly generate ideas without repeating himself, Strozier has always been held in high regard by musicians. Unfortunately, his contributions remain insufficiently known and appreciated by the wider jazz community.

The great multi-instrumentalist Howard Johnson, who recorded with Strozier, describes the latter’s position in the jazz continuum as more inspirational than directly influential: “No one was ever really up to the task of playing with that much technical proficiency, deep harmonic expression and all the while keeping a foot deeply in the blues. For me, Frank is joined by Harry Carney, Benny Golson, Sonny Red and Paul Gonsalves in the league of players who were never imitated because their way was too hard to figure out, much less execute. And at the same time they were as deeply inspirational as some of the widely acknowledged innovators. They gave us (me, at least) license to be unique.”

The albums that the MJT+3 made for Vee Jay Records in the late 1950’s have always been among my favorites and I thought it might be fun to profile them by reproducing on these pages the liner notes to three of them written by Ralph J. Gleason, Don Gold and Ira Gitler, respectively.

As is our custom, we will accompany these writings with video montages that offer audio samplings of the group’s music.

Walter Perkins’ MJT+3 [Vee Jay LP SR 1013] - Ralph J. Gleason

“It used to be, back in the days when jazz fans didn't exist in large enough numbers to make Miles Davis outsell Percy Faith, that you bought an occasional record and the rest of the time depended on in-person performances for your kicks.

There's still nothing to beat the thrill you get when you're there and the band is swinging. But records can come pretty close now and in one department they have actually supplanted the old way. That's in the special thrill you get when you hear somebody who is absolutely new to you, of whom you have never heard before and who just simply knocks you out.

This shock of recognition is one of the greatest kicks in jazz. Just as those rare moments when everything goes right, the whole thing falls into place and everybody is together, is what keeps the musicians going through the bad times, so the now and then discovery of a beautiful, exciting new voice in jazz is what keeps the listener plowing through all those LPs.

When I first played this LP, I recognized no one on it. After I looked at the personnel, I knew I had heard some of the men before and heard of some of the others. But what shattered me, racked me up and made me play it over and over was the work of a man I had never heard of, of whose existence I hadn't dreamt but whose music hit me with exceptional force.

His name is Frank Strozier and he plays the alto saxophone. Predictions are chance-y things at best, but I'll chance one right here. We've all been waiting for something past Bird to happen to the alto. Ornette Coleman is taking it in one direction and it is welcome news. Frank Strozier, it seems to me, is taking it in a parallel direction bowing, not to Bird directly, but to John Coltrane and Sonny Rollins and possibly to Ornette, as well. He rips into his solos with the agonized wail that Coltrane has made a specialty of; he packs each long line, breath-taking in its searing irregularity, with high-voltage emotion. To come through on record as he does, he must be something else in person. Hearing him, as I did, for the first time in the context of this LP, was an exciting and thrilling experience. I am sure we will all be hearing a lot more from this Memphis-born youngster.

There's another thing that strikes me about this album and that's the feeling for the blues. Jazz is spreading out these days, crossing the ordinary borders of continents and countries and seeping through the iron, bamboo and cultural curtains all over the world to become the common language of youth. There are some and who's to say they are merely mystics? - who firmly believe that jazz will provide the integument to make us all one world eventually.

Within that common language of jazz there is a basic accent - the blues - without which even the most talented (and the hit charts are ample proof of this) end up merely playing a sort of jazz-oriented cocktail lounge music. That accent comes in only two ways: you are born with it or you are seeped in it until it is a natural sound to you. You cannot play the blues any other way. As jazz continues to spread across the musical horizon and gradually take over as the popular music of the world, the difference between those who speak with this natural accent and those who just do not have it will become more and more marked.

The MJT Plus 3 speak the same language, have the same accent and sound like five brothers, disparate geographical and cultural backgrounds notwithstanding. This is one of the most hopeful aspects of jazz. It is really one of the most hopeful things in our entire Western culture. Jazz proves it can be done and here in an album by a group of young men in Chicago you find it clearly demonstrated.

It may be a long, lonesome road before jazz fulfills its promise but efforts like this show the way, show the possibility and the glimpse of that and its rewards is enough to make the whole thing worthwhile.

A WORD ABOUT THE MUSICIANS Harold Mabern: A 22-year-old, self-taught player, Mabern comes from Memphis and writes as well as plays. Two of his tunes, "Rochelle" (named for Perkins' daughter) and "Brother Spike" (named for the son of Bassist Bill Lee) are on this LP.

Bob Cranshaw, bass: 25 years old and from Evanston, III., has been associated with Perkins for some time. Willie Thomas, trumpet, is 28 and a veteran of several big bands (Anthony, Maclntyre, Herman) and the Al Beletto Sextet.

Frank Strozier, also, is only 22. From Memphis, he studied at Chicago's Conservatory of Music and has lived and worked in that city in recent years.”


“Several years ago, Dave Brubeck was asked to define jazz. The skilled pianist's response included this pertinent observation: "What is jazz? When there is not complete freedom of the soloist, it ceases to be jazz. Jazz is about the only form of art existing today in which there is this freedom of the individual without the loss of group contact.... The important thing about iazz right now is that it's keeping alive the feeling of the group getting together. Jazz, to make it, has got to be a group feeling and a group feeling for everyone concerned at the time." In an era in which jazzmen are herded into studios without adequate preparation or conscientious devotion to their music, it is rare to listen to a jazz LP without feeling that it should have been chalked up as a rehearsal for a date to come. The emphasis on group performance too often is neglected; like Mickey Spillane heroes, jazz soloists are in, out and off to the next scene.

Refreshingly, the MJT Plus 3 is not one of those haphazardly assembled groups of hungry jazzmen. Hungry, perhaps. But hungry to create the sort of music in which they believe. Hungry to contribute time and infinite effort to that creation.

The members of the MJT Plus 3 are not eligible for over-30 dances, which is one of the positive indications of the future of jazz. Two of them - alto man Frank Strozier and pianist Harold Mabern - came up the mainstream to Chicago from Memphis, a voyage that has brought other able young jazzmen in recent years (Phineas Newborn, Evans Bradshaw, Booker Little and George Coleman are among the prodigies who come to mind). Willie Thomas, the group's trumpeter, knows the ways of the road and the workings of jazz; he was a mainstay in the Al Beletto sextet and in several big bands. Walter Perkins, the drummer, and Bob Cranshaw, the bassist, have been partners in jazz for several years, working with pianist Ed Higgins' Chicago-based trio and with other midwestern jazz groups.

Perkins has fostered a dream for quite a few years - to sustain the fivesome on a working basis throughout the country, not simply as a local group existing on scale jobs and inspired rehearsals. For a long period of time, the stigma of "the local group" blocked advantageous bookings. The personnel of the group fluctuated. Perkins and Cranshaw never had difficulty in finding jobs, but the desire to see the MJT Plus 3 make it prodded Perkins. He spoke of it whenever and wherever he could, propagandizing writers, editors, record company executives, booking agents and club owners. Finally, this year his efforts paid off. The group could be held together by more than dedication. In a New York appearance, Perkins and men made it clear that they had something to say, that they were exceptionally talented musicians with a string of contributions - as individuals and, most important, as a group - to make in the constantly whirling world of jazz.

After several successful out-of-Chicago appearances, the group's reputation spread; it could return for a Chicago booking without worrying about ever leaving town again. A concern for the group was rewarded. In this, the second volume of the MJT Plus 3 on Vee-Jay, the group cooks as cohesively as ever. When jazz critic Ralph J. Gleason noted, in his comments on their previous LP, that they sound "like five brothers," he was being as accurate as he was flattering. The sounds on this disc merit such comment, too.

Harold Mabern's "Make Everybody Happy" does just that, in its down-home, gospelish, funky, soulful, sanctified, Bobby Timmons-ish (select your favourite term) manner. There are crackling solos from Strozier (Chicago's Conservatory of Music can be proud of this student) and Thomas and a piano passage from Mabern that would delight Ray Charles. In the hands of the group, "The Trolley Song" (remember the 1944 Hollywood epic, Meet Me in St. Louis) turns into a streetcar named Desire, thanks to inventive, offbeat use of the horns; during it, note how Mabern can be fleet when he has to be and economical when that is appropriate. Booker Little's tune, "Sweet Silver", is an obvious tribute to pianist Horace Silver - a hip-wiggling, bluesy salute to a sterling jazzman.

The familiar "Don't Get Around Much Any More" is a relaxed excursion, highlighted by Thomas-Perkins and Strozier-Cranshaw exchanges. Strozier and Thomas share the melody line of "My Buddy" and solo, along with Mabern, between statements of that line. Mabern's Richard's "Dilemma" is a rippling Latin opus, with biting comments from all but the pace-setting Perkins, who's content to provide the impetus. Thomas and Strozier have "Love Letters" their own way, but aren't neglected by the conscientious rhythm section.

To Perkins, who has observed virtuosity in working with Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, Ben Webster, Sonny Rollins and others, this must have been a satisfying session. It marks a dream come true. And to me it's an encouraging sign that there's plenty of jazz to be played in our time and plenty of eager musicians to play it. Togetherness in jazz apparently didn't die with the first free-for-all blowing session. Groups like the MJT Plus 3 may well restore the benefits jazzmen can acquire simply by listening to each other and respecting each other.”

MJT+3 [Vee Jay LP SR 3014] - Ira Gitler

In today's intense open competition for the jazz ring of success, a new group must have some quality which will interest record companies and hookers. Most groups have a leader who is an established name; others are composed of several "names" who have banded together under one identifying phrase.

The Modern Jazz Quartet is an example of the latter. In the early Fifties, when they began playing as a unit, club owners were reluctant to book them under their cooperative title. Instead, they wanted to present them as the Milt Jackson Quartet. In time, as they became established, MJQ became a jazz byword. To think of calling them by any other name, would now not smell sweet to their representatives.

The MJT + 3 is another case entirely. Here is a group without a "name" leader and without "name" musicians. It is a group, however, that is going to establish its call letters as a familiar and welcome sound in the ears of jazz listeners. MJT stands for Modern Jazz Two: drummer Walter Perkins and bassist Bob Cranshaw. These are two Chicago musicians who, working together extensively in the past several years, have developed into a tightly-knit rhythm duo.

The "+ 3" is made up of Frank Strozier, Willie Thomas and Harold Mabern.

Alto man Strozier, out of Memphis, Tennessee, came to Chicago to study at the Chicago Conservatory of Music. After graduation in 1958, he worked around town with his own groups and bassist Bill Lee's orchestra. Out of the tradition created by Charlie Parker, Frank is nevertheless a distinctive player and not only because his sound is his own. His excellent academic training never gets in the way of his jazz feeling; it only helps him to communicate it.

Willie Thomas' trumpet was heard around the Midwest (and sometimes the East) with the Al Belletto Sextet and Woody Herman's band when the Belletto group joined Woody en masse. Originally, his influence seemed to be Red Rodney and he echoes this in places here. Some of Art Farmer's lyricism seems to have crept in too, but Willie, like Frank, has his own things to say and his own way of saying them.

Harold Mabern is another Memphis migrant to Chicago. He and Strozier, in their early twenties, are the youngest of the group. Harold is a two-fisted, blues-rooted pianist who also comps with great authority. He has heard Horace Silver, to be sure, but his keyboard approach is vastly different.

And so the "3" came to Chicago and eventually merged with the MJT who had previously headed a group with other horn men. A new group was born without a particular star to hang its hopes on. As I said before, a new outfit must have some aspect which will attract the attention of the powers that present such groups to the public.

The MJT + 3 adheres to the old adage: "In unity there is strength." The collective spirit of the quintet and their ability to play well together is an outstanding feature. Strozier, Thomas and Mabern all contribute to the book, which while not avant-garde or terribly different, is personal, varied and, in several places, extremely unique. The ample space allotted to the soloists soon enables you to realize that talent transcends, whether the musicians are well-known or not.

The above sounds like this is the first recording by the group. Those of you who have followed them on Vee-Jay know better. However, there are many of you who are picking up on the MJT + 3 for the first time. This album, made after a successful invasion of New York (the Five Spot and Smalls') in early 1960, is representative of a new kind of achievement. They have crossed over that intangible line that separates the promising young group from the one with that air of confidence that is the mark of a polished professional combo. They haven't reached their apex yet, but they are on their way.

THE TUNES: Mabern's "Branchin' Out" is a finger-snappin' blues that is 'funky' but not 'corn-fed'. Solos by the "3". "Lil'Abner", Thomas' 'rhythm' swinger, is not from the score of the Broadway-Hollywood musical but rather a tribute to Mr Vee-Jay. The composer's Rodney influence is evident here. Cranshaw has a walking solo and there are exchanges between Perkins and the two horns.

"Don't Ever Throw My Love Away" by Strozier is not a blues by bar-structure, but it has enough blue feeling to paint countless predawn skies. Its lazy, down home, reflective atmosphere is well carried out by soloists Strozier, Thomas and Mabern. Strozier's flute and Thomas' muted trumpet combine to give Willie's wistful "Raggity Man" the proper raggle toggle quality. The march tempo in the bridge and the flute conjured up a weird image for me of a "spirit of 76er" with the blues, limping away from a battle with some Redcoats. Thomas was in his time-machine when he wrote this. It is an odd melody that you can't get out of your head.

"Sheila", by Strozier, has a haunting theme of its own in another groove. The three soloists are exceedingly tender as they show another side of their musical personalities. It is not necessary to play in ballad tempo to communicate a soft mood. The closer, Cole Porter's "Love For Sale", is a swift, well-integrated showcase for Perkins. After the theme, he trades two-bar thoughts with Strozier and Thomas and makes a longer solo statement on his own. Throughout the album, he demonstrates that you needn't play loud in order to swing.”

All three MJT+3 Vee Jay LPs have been compiled and reissued on CD by JORDI PUJOL (FRESH SOUND RECORDS).

Here are three video montages set to the MJT+3’s versions of Ray Bryant’s Sleepy, Harold Mabern’s Brother Spike and Booker Little’s Sweet Silver.

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