JJ 01/60: MJQ, A Progress Report

A reaction to hearing the MJQ again after two years, by Max Harrison. First published in Jazz Journal January 1960

The Modern Jazz Quartet

Many of the most far-reaching innova­tions in jazz have been the work of individuals. The most obvious example is Armstrong’s abandonment of the ensemble to establish the improvised solo as the most forceful means of jazz expression. More recently people like Monk, Rollins and Ornette Coleman have shown significant advances are still being made by the individual. There have been a few groups, however, that while containing fine soloists have produced valuable music, chiefly as the result of well-directed collective effort. Pre­eminent among these are the Ellington Orchestra and the Modern Jazz Quartet. Both have a reciprocal composer-performer relationship in which – par­ticularly in the quartet – every man plays a part in the creation of music that is shaped by the composer-leader. In certain respects the two groups have in their different fields achieved similar ends. In the thirties Ellington solved the dual problem of form and content for the large band and in the decade just ended the MJQ reached solutions to the same problem appropriate to small modern groups. John Lewis has also broadened the range of compositional techniques usable in jazz and the quartet has altogether brought improvising and composing into a more closely interacting relationship than ever before. Perhaps because it has achieved so much already one no longer expects anything from the guartet as startling as its past master­pieces like Three Windows or Versailles. The recent tour was therefore both welcome and timely for its demonstration that as much is happening within the group as ever, that new paths are still being explored.

Lewis appears to be developing his powers of what might be termed musical characterisation

On its visit two years ago the most striking feature of the quartet’s work was the masterly use of counterpoint. Such pieces as Concorde showed a contra­puntal method of collective improvisation had been evolved that while derived from classical practice was perfectly absorbed both into the jazz idiom and the group’s needs. This aspect was far less promi­nent at last year’s concerts and Lewis appears to be developing his powers of what might be termed musical characterisation. Despite the onomatopoeic effects of One Never Knows and the early record of Autumn In New York Lewis has never evinced real leanings towards programme music in the manner of Liszt or Richard Strauss. That he is respon­sive to visual images is shown by The Queen’s Fancy, inspired by a film of the Coronation of Elizabeth II, and Sun Dance, inspired by the Hopi dancers of New Mexico. More consistently, though, has he attempted musical reflections of character in something of the style of Ellington’s Portrait Of The Lion and Portrait Of Bert Williams. First came Fontessa with its impressions of Harle­quin, Pierrot and Columbine, three of the stock figures of the Commedia dell’arte. This was followed by the more diversi­fied characterisation of the Sait-on Jamais film score. To Fontessa have now been added a number of comple­mentary pieces that together make up The Comedy. At the recent concerts La Cantatrice, an impression of a minor Commedia figure, was linked with a new piece on Harlequin and the three-part Fontessa itself. In these Lewis achieves a richness of suggestion that surpasses not only the Ellington portraits but also such works as Smetana’s autobiographical string quartet Aus Meinen Leben. At the same time the pieces are satisfying in themselves as jazz aside from their explicit extra-musical associations. Surely no one but Lewis would have been bold enough to believe this possible within the field of modern jazz nor would even he have succeeded without any group but the MJQ. Altogether The Comedy illuminates another side of the composer and the further potential of the group.

Another new facet is the occasional fragmentation of melodic lines particu­larly in theme statements. The themes of Django, It Don’t Mean A Thing, Con­firmation and especially Yardbird Suite are broken up and presented a bar or two at a time on different instruments. In It Don’t Mean A Thing the theme chorus even has several different tempos. This melodic discontinuity may be an unconscious result of Lewis’s regard for Webern and his pointilliste method of orchestration.

Such devices can only be employed in the more or less pre-determined sections of each piece and the quartet’s most dis­tinctive quality remains its subtle and fluid balance between preparation and spontaneity. Milt Jackson, Lewis and the others continue to improvise more than any other group we are likely to hear and play quite different solos on consecu­tive performances of the same item. In a few pieces such as It Don’t Mean A Thing piano and vibraharp improvise together without support from bass or percussion but still maintain full rhythmic impetus. The basic features of each composition remain unchanged – the theme of Ralph’s New Blues is still announced in canon, for instance – but there is very much alteration in detail. Each item in the repertoire is subject to continual revision and such pieces as The Queen’s Fancy, Django, I’ll Remem­ber April and Fontessa are played rather differently from two years ago – and differently again from the recordings. Conversely long-term preparation is demonstrated by the fact the quartet has only recently begun to play Ray Brown’s Pyramid in public although it was written and given to them two years ago.

…a lot of nonsense has been written about Jackson as a musician full of ‘funk’ and ‘soul’. Nothing could be more mis­guided than to think of him as an instinc­tive and unthinking creator

While changes are noticeable every­where the repertoire in itself is not vastly different. Some of the old pieces have already been mentioned and others re­tained include Cortege, Softly As In The Morning Sunrise, The Golden Striker, Yesterdays and Now’s The Time. Among the additions are Festival Sketch, Mid-sommer and selections from the score of Odds Against Tomorrow. These latter are: A Social Call, No Happiness and a charming waltz called Skating In Central Park. This is one of the few really successful pieces of jazz out of 4/4 time and ranks with Jackson’s Soul In 3/4 and Rollins’s first recording of Valse Hot.

The ensemble playing, though it has to be adjusted to a different hall every day, is more remarkable than ever. Despite the divergent characters of the instruments one thinks of the quartet as an indivisible entity rather than four separate constituents. Even so each member is acutely aware of what the other three are doing. Lewis’s accompaniments especially are not mere back­grounds but form a kind of enhancing commentary on the solos they support. The individual musicians’ qualities are too well known by now to be detailed here. Jackson played a more powerful vibraharp than on the last tour and seems to get an even greater variety of nuance than before . As I have said else­where, a lot of nonsense has been written about Jackson as a musician full of ‘funk’ and ‘soul’. Nothing could be more mis­guided than to think of him as an instinc­tive and unthinking creator. The stylistic purity of his ballad and blues solos and the immaculate phrasing are evidence of vigilant control and a cultivated sensi­bility. How High The Moon, one of his solo features, was a masterly example of the development of ideas in an ex­tended improvisation.

While the impact of Jackson’s playing must be felt by everyone the quiet eloquence of Lewis’s improvising is a degree less obvious. Yet in these piano solos poise and sensitivity unite with an unusual control of the instrument to produce music of grace, clarity and freshness. Indeed freshness, the adapt­ability to change, the response to new stimuli, is perhaps the rarest quality the MJQ possesses. The complex innova­tions in form and content may be attractively daring but the freshness their music has now retained for several years is possibly the surest sign of its worth.

Har­riott showed himself to be a figure of considerably more than local significance

Even a few years ago the idea of two local artists appearing with a group like this would have been unthinkable. Now, however, Joe Harriott and Ronnie Ross were obvious choices. Both played very well with the quartet in Bag’s Groove, Night In Tunisia and All The Things You Are obviously finding the rhythm section a wonderful stimulus and readily fitting themselves to unfamiliar sur­roundings. They played with sensitivity and real melodic invention in their ballad selections. In I Didn’t Know What Time It Was at the first Kilburn concert Har­riott showed himself to be a figure of considerably more than local significance.