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John Henry
Audiophile Audition, July 2009

There are other MJQ DVDs out there, but this one is special for two reasons: the live videotaping from the Stuttgart Jazzgipfel in 1992 was part of the 40th Anniversary Tour by the long-running jazz quartet which brought a classical-chamber-music-demeanor to all their music and performances, and moreover it is a visual record of some of the excellent audio recordings the MJQ have released which combine the quartet with an orchestra. In fact, it is a serious omission that ArtHaus fails to mention the collaboration with the orchestra anywhere in the title of the DVD or on the front of the DVD box. Speaking of personnel, longtime MJQ drummer Connie Kay was seriously ill the night of this performance, so well-known jazz drummer Mickey Roker temporarily replaced him. He died in 1994.

The group’s 40th anniversary was celebrated around the world. It was a special year for the world’s most enduring small jazz group. Lewis and Jackson had started out in Dizzy Gillespie’s pioneering band of the late 1940s. John Lewis has the idea of trying to make jazz more presentable in society and to win over classical music fans. Adopting a mein of decorum and seriousness and wearing suits was part of the plan, as was Lewis’ use of various classical forms such as fugues in his music. He supported the "Third Stream" movement started by Gunther Schuller of blending jazz and classical, and in the MJQ collaborations with string quartets and symphony orchestras this idea was borne out most clearly.

All the works in this concert illustrate the best of the MJQ-and-orchestra efforts. The Stuttgart Symphony Orchestra had recorded a symphonic version of Lewis’ Three Windows back in 1958. Lewis back-announces the work in the concert as coming from his soundtrack score for the French film No Sun in Venice. The MJQ treatment of the glorious movement from Rodrigo’s Concierto de Aranjuez is one of the best of the jazz versions of that Adagio which continue to be performed by many different jazz groups around the world. The closing 20-minute three-movement suite A Day in Dubrovnik was especially moving because this concert was taking place during the Croatian War and the beautiful Adriatic city was being decimated by civil war at this very time.

The video taping and DTS audio are excellent. Due to probably lack of enough rehearsal time, the synchronization between the chamber orchestra and the MJQ could be better. The quartet mostly has their backs to the orchestra and are following their scores more than the conductor and orchestra musicians. But generally the collaboration is a successful one. It’s interesting how Jackson and Lewis differ so greatly in their approaches—Lewis the spare Basie-ish and classically-influenced pianist, and Jackson the wilder, more energetic vibist. Yet the often florid ornamentation of the melodic lines carried out by Bags seem to take on a near-Baroque quality that fits well into the diversified musical genre.

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 MJQ 35th, directed by Gianni Paggi, uses lots of close-ups of mallets, keyboard, and over-the-piano shots showing all four. A typical and varied set, they open joyously with Duke’s “Rockin’ In Rhythm,” and follow with Milt Jackson’s “Echoes,” in which the segue from piano to vibraphone is so smooth it seems like the same brain. The set continues with Lewis’ “Django,” “Summertime,” and “Bag’s Groove.” The closer is the eighteen-minute triptych, John Lewis’ “A Day In Dubrovnik.” Afternoon, evening and morning; these three scenarios are less programmatic than moods; I don’t detect any Yugoslavian ethnic influence here, rather a feeling of the air, sun and crowds; John Lewis mentions that he sees it as when the tourists arrive, the evening when the city reveals itself, and the morning when the tourists leave. The playing is sparkling, and anyone who likes a few or all their Atlantic LPs will want this as well. It also serves well as a first introduction to the group.

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