THE SEMINAL SOUND of the Modern Jazz Quartet is especially evocative of the 1960s – those almost levitational atmospheres rising from Milt Jackson’s vibraphone, coupled with John Lewis’s sensitive, Bachian piano impressions, supported by what would become the classic line-up with double bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay.
Although the MJQ’s output is redolent of its time, it’s a cause for rejoicing that, generations later, jazz artists hold dear the quartet’s legacy in revisiting their substantial catalogue of recordings. Continuing the work of the late Michael Garrick’s MJQ Celebration project (more recently led by Matt Ridley) is London-based vibraphonist/drummer Nat Steele; and his new Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet brings together a personnel steeped in the acoustic bebop tradition – pianist Gabriel Latchin and bassist Dario Di Lecce, along with charismatic drummer Steve Brown (a link from the previous 2014 release).
Described by respected drummer Clark Tracey as “one of the best vibes players this country has ever produced”, Steele adopts Milt Jackson’s two-malleted approach, authentically summoning his reverberant, chiming tones with fervour. But as a ‘portrait’, this ensemble seeks to put its own signature, here, on nine selections from earlier MJQ material; and recorded live in the studio, just a matter of hours after a Ronnie Scott’s ‘Late Late Show’, the zing was evidently still coursing through their collective veins.
Where these interpretations score, firstly, is the reality of the 21st Century recording quality; but there’s also a considered approach to the performances. So (purists look away now), where the tempo of the MJQ’s archive take on Dizzy Gillespie’s Woody ‘n’ You can sound a tad impatient, this quartet’s balanced swing feels easier on the ear. Their buoyancy, under Steele’s direction, is also captured well in classic, bluesy The Golden Striker, with its hallmark jangling bells, and again in a slick rendition of Jackson’s signature piece, Bags’ Groove. In contrast, the measured, easy walk of Autumn in New York focuses on their ability to use space to great effect, as does a luscious reading of Cole Porter’s All of You.
I’ll Remember April and Lewis’s ‘well-tempered’ Bach-infused Softly, as in a Morning Sunrise (both from mid-’50s release ‘Concorde’) find a spring in their step – Steve Brown’s dependable precision, and that infectious smile, are all over them. Django honours the MJQ’s gift to us with poise, maintaining both its animation (thanks to Di Lecce’s lucid bass) and suspended vibes delicacy; and whilst the complete La Ronde Suite may seem more percussively ‘polite’ than the original, once again it’s the fine, chamber detail that delights.
Released on 22 September 2017, Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet might, with its blithe spirit, either ‘take you back’ or open a very clear portal to this still-relevant musical landscape. Available from Nat Steele’s website, Proper Music, Amazon and record stores.
Nat Steele vibraphone
Gabriel Latchin piano
Dario Di Lecce double bass
Steve Brown drums
Trio Records – TR598 (2017)