Modern Jazz Quartet Live at Monterey
(Douglas AD-07. CD Review by Peter Jones)
If, in retrospect, there is a jazz combo that looks less fashionable than the Dave Brubeck Quartet, it is probably the Modern Jazz Quartet. Both were massively popular and successful over roughly the same time period. Both had a restrained, rather professorial image, conservatively dressed, with a reputation for playing polite jazz music for white people; objects of scorn, in other words, for those who preferred their musicians to look like they had to scuffle harder.
MJQ certainly had a smooth sound, honed from being in the same group together for so long (nine years by the time this live recording was made at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival). But that smoothness was deliberate policy on the part of the group and its musical director, pianist John Lewis. The discipline they had all learned from playing formal charts as the rhythm section for Dizzy Gillespie’s Big Band was maintained in this small unit. They wanted to be taken seriously, as if they were a string quartet playing classical repertoire. And therein lies the problem (if it is a problem): MJQ were a bit conservative, lacking the wildness and unpredictability inherent in other styles of jazz. They did not go out on a limb. They did not hit the odd bum note while reaching for something extraordinary. In other words, one does not get the sense that anything very exciting is going to happen. One critic accused them of ‘relentless tastefulness’, partly due to the ‘saccharine’ tonal combination of Lewis’s piano and the vibraphone of Milt ‘Bags’ Jackson. How could you play blues tunes like this? Where was the edge?
But I would suggest there are still reasons to listen to them. To begin with, they were all master musicians, as well as brilliant improvisers. The over-smoothness complained of could be attributed to the perfection of their playing. Secondly, they embodied the spirit of the cool school. Sure, maybe there was nothing to get too worked up about, but who said jazz always has to be thrilling? Sometimes there is pleasure in restraint, as we hear in Lewis’s composition In A Crowd, with its subtle modulations and chirpy piano and vibes solos.
One can also enjoy the formal structure of a tune like Winter Tale, a mini-suite in two distinct repeated sections. It begins like the accompaniment to a dramatic silent movie, all rippling piano and arco double bass, before settling into a sort of manouche section played accelerando, which morphs into a brisk upswing. The elusive time count on the intro to The Sheriff showcases the murderous accuracy of Connie Kay on drums and Percy Heath on bass, before the band sets off on another tasteful upswing excursion. The more I play this CD, the more I like it. Let’s give MJQ a chance!