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K. Fennessy
Video Librarian, September 2009

In 1987, the Modern Jazz Quartet marked their 35th anniversary, a milestone commemorated in this hour-shy concert from Germany’s Zelt Musik Festival. Formed in 1952, the post-bop group took a hiatus between 1974 and 1981, but then rejoined for 14 more years (all have since passed away). Dressed in cream tuxedos with black bowties, John Lewis (piano), Milt “Bags” Jackson (vibraphone), Percy Heath (bass), and Connie Kay (drums), who replaced Kenny Clarke in ‘55, are in fine form throughout this set in Freiburg. Jackson, the most famous of the quartet, takes most of the solos, notably on his stately “Echoes” and on Lewis’ dreamy “Django” (after Django Reinhart), the latter featuring a playful pas de deux between vibes and keys. MJQ continues to pay tribute to other favored players, like Duke Ellington (“Rockin’ in Rhythm,” co-written with Harry Carney), Charlie Parker (Lewis’ “Kansas City Breaks,” a reference to the saxophone legend’s hometown), and George Gershwin (“Summertime,” co-written with DuBose Heyward). Although Jackson and Lewis take turns announcing most of the seven selections, onscreen titles list the remaining pieces, which is sure to be helpful for those less familiar with their repertoire (however, “Bags’ Groove” is incorrectly listed as “Backgroove”). The set ends with the encore “A Day in Dubrovnik,” a quietly powerful Lewis composition that clocks in at 18 minutes. Presented in Dolby Digital 5.1, DTS, and PCM stereo, this is recommended.

Steve Koenig
Acoustic Levitation, June 2009

When I was a teen, my first encounter with the MJQ gave me the feeling that their formal clothing extended to their music in an overly serious, dry way. If I had heard this 35th anniversary date back then, I likely would have had a totally different reaction. You don’t need a few rows of horns to make music swing. I started to listen to them afresh after they put out a disc on the Beatles’ Apple label (I was mad for anything on Apple; still am). I tend to think of John Lewis as the head, Milt Jackson as the heart, and Percy Heath and Connie Kay as the two legs of the MJQ. Tight, yes; unified, yes; stodgy? No way.
Taken from European television tapes, these recordings look their vintage, and not at all badly. I listened to them in stereo and the sound is surprisingly vibrant and realistic.

The 40th anniversary show is a different set, except for the closer, “A Day In Dubovnik.” There are two major differences here. Veteran drummer Mickey Roker, in fine form, takes the place of Connie Kay, who was ill, and acquits himself well. Additionally, the quartet is augmented by a chamber orchestra. John Lewis is an accomplished proponent of third stream music, and has often, done well on record, but here, the Kammerorchester arcata stuttgart, well as they play, merely gilds the lily. Even though the pieces are Lewis’ compositions “Three Windows” and “Sketch,” with strings, and “Alexander’s Fugue,” with winds, the band serves as background to the MJQ; nothing offensive yet nothing enriching. This impression is further enforced with their adagio from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez, where one wishes just for the quartet, especially when Milt Jackson takes on a deeply riveting vibraphone solo (the Spanish flavor here is subtler than saffron anyway), and “Dubrovnik,” which was so much more powerful in concept and execution in the 35th anniversary set without orchestra.

The direction by Christian Wagner, too, is excellent, with many close-up, and the film is not overly busy. So, recommended to the MJQ faithful and to those who enjoy excellent jazz with orchestral backup.

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