‘Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet’ – Nat Steele

Nat Steele_MJQ

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 websiteProper MusicAmazon and record stores.

 

Nat Steele vibraphone
Gabriel Latchin piano
Dario Di Lecce double bass
Steve Brown drums

natsteele.com

Trio Records – TR598 (2017)

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‘Kind of Cool’ – Wolfgang Haffner

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IT WOULD BE EASY, on a first hearing, to pass off Wolfgang Haffner’s Kind of Cool as bog-standard ‘elevator music’, given his assured, easy-going approach to this stream of jazz favourites. But offering so much more than that, he presents a thread of accessible Summer’s afternoon ‘cool’ in immaculate, straight-ahead renditions including So What, Summertime, and My Funny Valentine.

As a jazz drummer, composer, producer and bandleader, Haffner has for many years been highly regarded throughout his native Germany and beyond – indeed, a weighty back catalogue of recorded and live collaborations (including Pat Metheny, Michael Brecker, John Abercrombie, Michael Wollny) tell their own story. Recalling his early introduction to jazz, it was the LPs of Dave Brubeck, Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers and the Modern Jazz Quartet that helped Haffner forge his musical identity; and here, he approaches familiar ‘greats’ with a fresh elegance, along with a trio of his own compositions which neatly dovetail into the prevailing chilled groove. A sextet album with guests, the main line-up boasts extraordinary collective experience: Christopher Dell (vibes), Jan Lundgren (piano), Dan Berglund (bass), Dusko Goykovich (trumpet) and Jukka Perko (alto sax), plus Haffner at the kit.

So a few pointers: Haffner’s gently shuffling Hippie, with Jukka Perko’s mellow alto conjuring thoughts of Paul Desmond’s (Brubeck’s) signature sound, leads to a buoyant, vibes-embellished interpretation of Miles Davis’ So What. The only vocal track finds soulful Max Mutzke (in an impressive first take) easing into Billy Eckstein’s Piano Man, with marvellously measured blues piano from guest Frank Chastenier; and the timeless appeal of Autumn Leaves is longingly windswept by Dusko Goykovich’s muted trumpet. Tantricity (from Haffner’s pen) meanders abstractly before a welcome gear change in Summertime – Gershwin’s spiritual reinvented as a catchy, laid-back swing.

Rodgers & Hart’s My Fully Valentine maintains its slow, haunting mystery thanks to Perko’s silky alto; and the cheeky unison horn demeanour of Nat Adderley’s One For Daddy O swaggers to the velvety trombone of guest Nils Landgren. With reminiscences of Chet Baker’s smooth vocal delivery, I Fall In Love Too Easily smoulders to Goykovitch’s soft trumpet and Jan Lundgren’s pianistic grace. John Lewis’s Django takes a new twist away from MJQ familiarity, its inquiring sax melody entering the realm of TV drama theme; and Haffner’s Remembrance is a fitting bookend, every bit as appealing as its classic companions.

A recording occasionally veering close to soporific in places, the similar key-change oscillations of the first two programmed tracks didn’t initially help to grab the attention (though perhaps Wolfgang would be quite happy with the Miles comparison!). But as the album proceeds, there’s the realisation of ordered clarity and sophistication which becomes increasingly satisfying. Maybe not literally “my favourite work of art”… but, having already received many enjoyable plays, it will no doubt be pressed into action as the long (hopefully warm and sunny) days of Summer approach.

Released on 23 February 2015, further information, audio clips and purchasing can be found at ACT Music.

 

Wolfgang Haffner drums
Christopher Dell vibraphone
Jan Lundgren piano
Dan Berglund bass
Dusko Goykovich trumpet
Jukka Perko alto saxophone
with
Max Mutzke vocals
Frank Chastenier piano
Christian von Kaphengst bass
Nils Landgren trombone

wolfganghaffner.com

ACT Music  – ACT 9576-2 (2015)

‘The MJQ Celebration’ – Jim Hart, Barry Green, Matt Ridley, Steve Brown with Dave O’Higgins

MJQ

Originally formed by pianist and composer Michael Garrick MBE, who sadly passed away in 2011, The MJQ Celebration had been delighting sell-out UK audiences with their fresh interpretations of the pioneering 1950s/60s sounds of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Determined to continue the success of the project, and in Michael’s memory, the friends are now touring again as a new line-up, launching this engaging debut release.

Read the full review at LondonJazz News…


Jim Hart
vibraphone
Barry Green piano
Matt Ridley double bass
Steve Brown drums

special guest
Dave O’Higgins tenor saxophone

Kings Gambit Records (KGR001) – 2014