JJ 03/59: The Modern Jazz Quartet – One Never Knows

First published Jazz Journal, March 1959


Individually, the four members of the MJQ are the most extraordinary musicians. On their own, they are jazzmen of the first rank who have shown their capability and swing in other company.

Lewis, when he starts, can really go with the most sure and economical touch – launched on a swinging solo it is like feeling the muscles of some wiry horse breaking into a canter.

Percy Heath is among the greater bass players of the time, and never more so than when playing with the quartet. It is he more than any other who maintains the right of this group to be regarded as an integral part of the jazz tradition.

By its nature such a group cannot be content with a standard material. The intelligence of the group, and the degree of austerity in its adopted form, call for original composition exactly tailored to its requirements. At the same time, the romanticism which is implicit in its instrumentation permits the use of material which in a conventional (or less disciplined) jazz group would lead to sentimentality.

It is for these reasons that one expects the MJQ repertoire to be weighted towards programme music. Not much film music can stand on its own feet, but this can and as a jazz collection it can take its place with other worthwhile things like the Ellington Shakespearean fancies or Ken Moule’s willowy pieces.

I admire this music immensely, liking parts of it (particularly “The Rose True”) greatly, but find the overall effect slightly wearisome. Perhaps because the vibes have never appealed to me very much, and there are lots of little bells.

“The Golden Striker” is too well known now to need comment, having been adopted by other groups of a very different character. It is one of three pieces which are stated, briefly and brilliantly, in “Three Windows” and then developed individually. The two middle tracks are somewhat lush. “Cortege” and “The Rose True” are nearer to the main body of jazz. “Three Windows” is the one to sample.
Graham Boatfield

The Golden Striker: One Never Knows; The Rose True (18 min) – Cortege: Venice; Three Windows (19 min)
John Lewis (p); Milt Jackson (vibraharp); Percy Heath (bs); Connie Kay (ds).
London LTZ-K 15140. 12in LP 37s. 6d.