A Detroit essential

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A Detroit essential

This was probably the first live jazz band I ever saw, part of my sentimental education as a late 1960s Chadsey High School student. Now this Blue Note single-disc reissue of the first two Contemporary Jazz Quintet (CJQ) LPs, under the first record's title, is an essential Detroit jazz document. The CJQ was a big deal, but these much-anticipated records disappointed some fans. They said the studio had tamed the band. For them, the CJQ was much more off-the-chain, wilder, live.

Today, these sounds are wild, weird, wonderful, sophisticated and utterly up-to-date. This isn't just nostalgia. This is great music.

People admired the CJQ's compositions. Tunes seem to start and stop in the middle, and then go to all kinds of unexpected places in between. Trumpeter Charles Moore is equally comfortable with both breakneck speeds and lightly swinging tempos, playing sinewy, ethereal lines with a spooky melodic sense. Saxophonist Leon Henderson, too, sounds like he's trying to rewrite the rulebook. For one thing, he has few show tune allusions in his playing, though there is, of course, the blues. But you've never heard lines like these.

And then there's the rhythm section. Detroiters know they've got a master artist in Kenny Cox, but these early recordings are revelatory. Drummer Danny Spencer and bassist Ron Brooks are a tight team, and Spencer's high-energy, all-over-the-drum kit style never falters. The band's sense of time, its swing, is breathtaking. And, yes, you should have seen them live.

The CJQ were social as well as musical revolutionaries. It was hard for teens to hear live jazz back then. But Cox and his colleagues started the Strata Concert Gallery. There, teens like my friend and fellow Chadsey alum — the poet Kaleema Hasan — and I saw the CJQ often; and, one memorable night, an Archie Shepp performance with Spencer and Roy Brooks. That night the energy lit up Michigan Avenue, which was dark in those days too. And I now know how lucky I am to have known the CJQ, and how lucky we are to hear them again. —Geoffrey Jacques

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