Rifftides Washington, DC, correspondent John Birchard watched a DVD of the Modern Jazz Quartet’s 1994 35th Anniversary Tour and sent this review.
The 57 minutes were recorded at the Freiburg, Germany, music festival in 1987 and the evening shows the guys in average (that is to say brilliant) form.
The program opens with a vigorous “Rocking in Rhythm” from the Ellington songbook, featuring stop-time passages for each member. It seems that in their later years together, the four grew somehow both tighter and looser. The ensembles were ultra-crisp from so many performances, yet the feeling is one of relaxed, flowing conversation.
Milt Jackson handles the announcements and they are models of economy, no wasted words. The program resumes with “Echoes”, a lovely ballad that picks up momentum with the MJQ’s patented chugging two-feeling. Was there ever a better ballad player on vibes than Jackson?
“Kansas City Breaks”, dedicated to Charlie Parker, follows, then a rather fussy version of “Django”. The quartet must have played “Django” ten thousand times or more over the years and John Lewis often re-arranged the piece to keep it fresh. This arrangement tinkers with the structure rather more than necessary.
Gershwin’s “Summertime” is next, then “Bags Groove”, another piece that the group surely performed in the thousands of times. But, at least for this listener, it has never grown stale. The medium blues showcases the strengths of the MJQ – John Lewis’ infectious, epigrammatic comping and his deceptively simple solos… Jackson’s never-ending supply of great blues choruses…Percy Heath’s ferocious, stomping four-to-the-bar time… and Connie Kay, head slightly bowed and turned to the left as he listened, laying down the foundation upon which the others built their soul-satisfying structures.
The DVD ends with the group’s encore – “A Day in Dubrovnik”, one of Lewis’ compositions inspired by European cities. Lewis introduces it in his soft, almost apologetic way, saying it’s an extended piece that describes in music the flavor of the old Adriatic city — the arrival of tourists in the afternoon, the night life and the quiet of the morning. Lewis wrote several attractive European-sounding themes for the piece, as he had done before in such compositions as “Spanish Steps” and “Vendome”. It is my own shortcoming that I cannot appreciate this part of John Lewis’ talent as much as I do his more straight-ahead jazz writing and playing. But I can tell you the Freiburg audience was vocal in its appreciation of “Dubrovnik” and the group, of course, played it well. Not my cup of tea, but the rest of the DVD is top-notch MJQ.
The disc is a reminder of what we have lost with the passing of these gifted men. They each recorded with other artists, and often the recordings were very good to excellent. But together they created a unique body of work, a blend of delicate strength and refined funk that stands alone.
– John Birchard