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Under The Jasmin Tree + Space

The two albums presented here capture a moment in time when, in 1968 and ‘69, the vision of the Modern Jazz Quartet was realized in full. The raison d’être was to democratize jazz, to develop jazz and to encourage jazz to flourish in pastures new. Under The Jasmin Tree and Space did just that. But not without a little help from their friends.

The Modern Jazz Quartet comprised John Lewis (piano), Milt Jackson (vibraphone), Percy Heath (bass) and Connie Kay (drums). The group’s origins went way back, to just after World War II when its founding musicians first came together under the tutelage of bebop pioneer Dizzy Gillespie. By 1960, as The Beatles emerged from the skiffle chrysalis that had been The Quarrymen, the MJQ had been established nearly 10 years, and its members had been playing together (in Gillespie's band and then in their own) for nearly fifteen. As the Sixties began, the MJQ remained hot property and at home in America enjoyed a popularity that was only rivalled, in concert appearances and album sales, by Dave Brubeck and Miles Davis.

Almost a decade further on from that and the world of the MJQ collided, beautifully and briefly, with that of The Beatles. One quartet consisted of super cool jazz improvisers, the other boundary-breaking pop polymaths. The MJQ was still up there, still together, and still commanding huge respect and impressive audiences. The Beatles were destined to split shortly afterwards.

Before they too separated, the MJQ clocked up 22 years together, an unprecedented timespan for an original four-piece, of any genre. The split came in 1974, after the memorable Last Concert at the Lincoln Centre in New York City. But the group reconvened in 1981 and issued its final recording in 1993, the year that their debut album for The Beatles’ Apple label, Under The Jasmin Tree, was reissued for the first time.

That album was originally released in 1968, followed by Space in 1969. Both shine brightly in the Quartet's extensive catalogue, not just for their brilliantly understated melodic statements, their fluid, organic jazz, but for the era-defining psychedelic artwork that adorned their sleeves, and the fact that they appeared on Apple. The vast majority of the MJQ’s albums appeared under the aegis of the US music industry giant and jazz trailblazer that was Atlantic Records.

Although The Beatles once famously sang that they had no kick against modern jazz, they couldn’t honestly claim to be responsible for bringing about the MJQ's two-album secondment to Apple. In fact, the instigator of this short but happy union was the first Head of Apple Records, the fondly remembered Ron Kass. Ron was the seasoned American record company professional head-hunted from Liberty Records. He was also the biggest jazz fan at Apple’s HQ, 3 Savile Row in London. "I loved Ron, he was exactly what we needed,” recalls Peter Asher, Apple's Head of A&R at the time. “He was knowledgeable, he knew the state of the business. He had the smooth American suit-and-tie thing going, which was what we thought Apple had to have in order to interface with the business world and the Capitol (EMI) world. We liked him, he understood us.”

Peter continues: "The Modern Jazz Quartet came to Apple because Ron Kass was very friendly with Monte Kay, their manager. And Ron said, ‘Wouldn't it be cool for the MJQ to do an album on Apple?’ Ron's pitch was that it would make them a lot of new fans, as some Beatles fans would listen to the MJQ just because it was on Apple, and Monte really liked the idea."

Of the two MJQ albums released by Apple, one arrived ready-made, having been recorded in New York, and the other was tailor-made in London. Peter Asher: “My recollection is that they came in with one album already done, which is Under The Jasmin Tree, and Apple put that out. And then they made an album for Apple, Space, and that's the one that I co-produced with John Lewis. Or more officially, the credit says ‘Produced by John Lewis. Supervised by Peter Asher’.“

Both albums loomed large in the consciousness of John Lewis, the group’s leader and musical director. In 1974, for the recording of The Last Concert, and with over 25 studio albums from which to select tracks, he ensured that both Under The Jasmin Tree and Space were represented. The title track from Jasmin Tree was introduced as something “that was used for film, in this case a short documentary, about the people who live in the desert part of Morocco. Our music had the kind of feel that suggests the music of the people who live in that area”. The second Apple album was remembered in the form of the Adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto De Aranjuez. This was an MJQ third stream favourite — jazz meets classical — recorded several times throughout the group’s career, notably as the final track on Space.

Peter Asher recalls working on Space. “I was thrilled because I too was a big jazz fan. But I’m sure they were deeply suspicious. The idea of this white English kid supervising John Lewis is clearly absurd. Although I was at least able to convince them that I knew their music. I wasn't some rock'n'roller who'd been detailed to work with them. I was a huge MJQ fan. I knew their albums. I knew exactly how they played. And I tried to play a role.”

Peter’s role was to achieve, with all the subtlety and grace expected when working with the MJQ, an update of the group’s sound, to open it up to The Beatles’ predominantly rock and pop-orientated audience. The sessions took place at the new and highly-regarded Trident Studios in London’s Soho district, where state-of-the-art technology and a new approach to capturing music on tape had lured The Beatles themselves, and would at various times attract almost the entire roster of Apple’s early album artists: James Taylor, Mary Hopkin, Jackie Lomax, Badfinger, Doris Troy and Billy Preston. Trident turned out to be the ideal British venue for the MJQ’s unique instrumental palette of piano, vibes, bass and drums, boasting, as it did, a hand-made Bechstein concert grand (as heard on ‘Hey Jude’), which sounded particularly fine when played by the impeccable John Lewis.

The MJQ was efficient and meticulous in the studio. “I remember this precisely,” says Peter Asher, recalling the Trident sessions in late March 1969. “It didn't take too long. A few days. And this is what I was trying to do. I was trying to use a rock'n'roll engineer (Trident’s co-owner Barry Sheffield). I always thought that jazz got recorded in a certain way with the bass a bit distant and the drums a bit woolly, and everyone said 'That's a jazz record'.” Peter’s efforts paid off, and the result was a perceptively different MJQ album. “A few years later when fusion started,” Peter adds, “that was half the trick. They were just taking jazz and recording it like rock'n'roll. So you could actually hear the kick-drum, instead of it being somewhere across the room.”

And what of the atmosphere in the studio? Of the chemistry between the 24-year-old former Peter & Gordon pin-up English pop star and the MJQ, led by the Albuquerque-raised veteran jazz magician more than twice his age? "I ended up getting on with them all very well,” says Peter. “I met John Lewis first, obviously, and had several conversations with him. I convinced him that I had some idea of what I was doing. I enjoyed working with him very much.”

John Lewis’ modus operandi made a particular impression on the young Peter Asher: "He totally ran the show. He was the band leader in the old sense of the word. If you recall, the MJQ's whole thing was to take jazz and present it as if it was classical music. They all wore suits and ties. They were all very buttoned up and controlled, that was their thing. It was like chamber jazz. That was all him.”

But the spirit of rebellion which had fuelled jazz from its inception, was still bubbling beneath the surface. Peter: “I do remember there were occasions when he would leave the studio and the other three were instantly like... jackets off, joints out, you know — the-headmaster's-gone vibe completely. They were jazzers in full sense of the word. And he was imposing this vision on them — which was very successful. The MJQ achieved a lot in white America and a lot in classical music in America that no jazz had ever achieved before. Now, in the age of Wynton Marsalis, we take a lot of that for granted. But back then, jazz was not taken seriously as an art form, and John Lewis made that happen. He put them in suits, they played Carnegie Hall — everlasting credit to him.”

Working with MJQ’s star soloist, vibes virtuoso Milt Jackson, was also a highlight of the Space sessions as far as Peter Asher was concerned. “Milt Jackson? I was thrilled,” he readily admits. “I don't think they understood to what extent they were my heroes. I had the Milt Jackson and Ray Charles albums, all the Modern Jazz Quartet albums. I was just so excited to be in their presence, let alone to have the opportunity to record them and hear them play these songs. Milt Jackson was a genius, they all were, but Milt in particular, was one of the most soulful men in the history of music. I was in awe, and they found the whole thing a bit puzzling, I think. But they exceeded my expectations musically.”

Ron Kass had been right on the money. Signing the MJQ to Apple proved to be inspired. Peter Asher concurs: “We succeeded in the aim which was 'Let's make some Beatles fans listen to some jazz, because it would be good for them. Because they are missing out. Because only the jazzbo people listened to it and, you know, that's wrong.”

Now, 40 years on, Apple Records is proud to present Under The Jasmin Tree and Space once more, augmented here by an entirely suitable bonus track. Dating from March 1969, here is a newly-discovered, previously unreleased cut from the Space sessions, in which the Modern Jazz Quartet — John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath and Connie Kay — do exceptional jazz justice to that most universal of Beatles classics, ‘Yesterday’.


John Lewis (Tracks 5 to 10 supervised by Peter Asher)
Recorded at
unknown (New York) + Trident
Released (UK)
Released (US)
Released (UK)
Released (US)