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W 1951 r. czterech dobrze sobie znanych muzyków z big-bandu Dizzy'ego Gillespiego założyło mały zespół studyjny, przyjmując nazwę Milt Jackson Quartet. W zespole tym na wibrafonie grał Milt Jackson, na fortepianie John Lewis, na kontrabasie Ray Brown, na perkusji Kenny Clarke. Miejsce Browna zajął wkrótce Percy Heath, a w roku następnym grupa przyjęła nazwę Modern Jazz Quartet. I chociaż pierwotnie muzycy mieli zamiar oddawać się wyłącznie pracy w studio, teraz zaczęli przyjmować również oferty koncertowe. W 1955 r. odszedł Clarke, a zastąpił go Connie Kay. Odtąd, przez następne kilka lat, nowa obsada z Jacksonem, Lewisem, Heathem i Kayem pracowała jako zespół w pełnym wymiarze etatów, redukując w późniejszym okresie swe zespołowe obowiązki do kilku miesięcy w roku. MJQ zdobył sobie ogromną popularność, ale też budził wiele kontrowersji, traktowano ich bowiem z jednej strony jako "czarną" replikę na "biały" intelektualizm kwartetu Dave’a Brubecka, z drugiej zaś strony artykuowali nowojorską ripostę na styl West Coast z Zachodniego Wybrzeża. Oponenci twierdzili, że ich jazz jest zbyt celebrowany i delikatny. Cokolwiek by mówić, trudno zaprzeczyć, że MJQ wniósł do jazzu swymi interpretacjami szlachetność i profesjonalizm klasycznego kwartetu. W 1974 r. MJQ rozwiązał się, w 1981 r. reaktywował by odbyć lukratywną trasę po Japonii. Okazała się ona wielkim sukcesem, który zachęcił muzyków kwartetu do kontynuowania koncertów i nagrań. Gdy mowa o tym najbardziej intelektualizującym ze wszystkich zespołów bopowych, należy przyznać, że największą indywidualnością, wywierającą wpływ na innych był pianista John Lewis, reprezentujący w tym kontekście najlepiej pełnię swych możliwości kompozytorskich i cool jazzowego wykonawstwa. W interpretacjach MJQ odbijały się także zainteresowania Lewisa klasyką, co sprawiło, że zaczęto od czasu do czasu klasyfikować ten kwartet, zapewne niesłusznie, w sąsiedztwie "third stream jazzu". Z kolei grę Heatha i Kaya cechował w kwartecie, jak w większości innych obsad, subtelny swing. Jackson z całej czwórki był najbardziej muzycznie nieprzewidywalny, co sprawiało, że nakładane na niego w ramach kwartetu ograniczenia owocowały intrygującymi napięciami w zakresie formy, którą w sensie jazzowym należy zaliczyć do najbardziej emocjonujących elementów nieskazitelnej, cichej i poważnej muzyki MJQ. Śmierć Johna Lewisa, a wcześniej Conniego Kaya, zakończyły definitywnie istnienie MJQ.
Źródło: Dionizy Piątkowski, "Encyklopedia Muzyki Popularnej - JAZZ")
At this distance it's impossible to imagine the ire and gnashing of teeth the dignified and respectable Modern Jazz Quartet caused among critics in the 1950s and 1960s. "Jazz can hardly survive in the impossible medium of vibraphone, piano, bass and percussion," asserted Wilfred Mellers in his book Music in a New Found Land. "The earthiness of jazz has been replaced by a fey tinkling," wrote Benny Green in The Observer. Their hackles, in common with many others, had been raised by the MJQ's attempts to graft European structures - particularly the conventions of Bach - onto Hard Bop through the influence of their pianist and musical director John Lewis.
What makes these experiments interesting today is that the problems Lewis was grappling with then - the problems of integrating more sophisticated forms and structures into jazz - still remain to be fully confronted by the jazz community as a whole. To be fair, such aspirations were not the exclusive province of the MJQ - a partial list of experimenters in this area might also include Jelly Roll Morton, the Boswell Sisters, Duke Ellington, Charles Mingus, Dave Brubeck, Duane Tatro, Richard Muhal Abrams, Toshiko Akyoshi, Joe Zawinul, Wayne Shorter, Wynton Marsalis and Maria Schneider - but they was certainly central to the group's ethos. Considering what a fundamental role form and structure play in European classical music, in jazz it still remains a vital and intriguing area that offers enormous expressive potential to the composer.
This has been brought home in recent times with the preponderance of young artists promoted by recording companies steeped in the nomenclature of Hard Bop. The distinct sense of deja vu they evoke harks back to the original Hard Bop era of the late 1950s that prompted Lewis's search for more interesting forms and structures beyond the jazz tradition. In many ways, Lewis's work now assumes great relevance to our times, since these young musicians, in following the examples of their older and sometimes posthumous forebears, often appropriate compositions from the Hard Bop era or compose their own originals inspired by the older models.
The problem is that these songforms are relatively straightforward vehicles for improvisation based on the Blues or the basic ternary popular song form. Arrangements usually take the form of a statement of the melody, in unison or lightly harmonised, a string of solos and a return to the melody. Very little attention is given to moving the piece through changes of tempo, mood or meter through the introduction of ad hoc songforms.
This is not to say the 'theme-solos-theme' approach has not served jazz well, but even by the early 1960s its limitations were plain for all to see - not least by the free musicians who sought to break free of its limitations by other means. They could see it imposed a similarity of conception that the improviser alone could not wholly overcome. To put it another way, how many CDs in recent years employ these simple structural schemes? The answer is a great many, suggesting the problem today is much the same as it was when the MJQ cut their first tracks together in New York City in 1952.
Lewis and the other members of the quartet had originally played together in the rhythm section of Dizzy Gillespie's 1946 big band. After a couple of false starts and a name change, Lewis on piano, Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Percy Heath on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums emerged as the Modern Jazz Quartet on a December 1952 session for the newly formed Prestige label. Lewis took it upon himself to provide most of the group's repertoire and as he progressively assumed artistic control, Clarke left and was replaced by Connie Kay. The problem that confronted Lewis was one of musical direction. On hand was a group of gifted (and in the case of Jackson, brilliant) musicians, yet the group offered only a limited dynamic range and a narrow tonal palette.
The question was how to marshal these resources to maximum effect. Once the regular piano player in Charlie Parker's Quintet, Lewis had been ideally placed to see that Bop was being propelled forward by instrumental virtuosity alone, which in itself could be ultimately limiting. "The thing that attracted me to the music of Charlie Parker and Dizzy was that they started doing innovations in the structures of the pieces they played which were based on older chord structures," Lewis said. "But the melodic lines they used were much more intricate than the things that had gone before.... However their innovations in structure were generally only at the beginning and the end of a composition."
There was a continual reliance on a predictable rodomontade of solos sandwiched between statements of the theme: "That was the weak link," Lewis explained. "Just theme-solos-theme. So I tried to do something more than that." Lewis reasoned that for the music to develop, compositional form might be one way to enrich the music's basic design. "Altering the structure helps with variety and adds to maintaining interest," he says.
The staggering virtuosos in jazz did not intimidate Lewis at the time. Significantly he had been involved in the Miles Davis Birth of the Cool sessions where virtuosity, the sine qua non of Bop, had been rationalised into a less frantic form of expressionism. For these historic sessions, Lewis had contributed arrangements of Move, a piece written by George Shearing Quintet drummer Denzil Best; the Miles Davis/Bud Powell composition Budo (also recorded by Powell as Hallucinations); and Lewis's own composition Rouge (a blueprint for The Queen's Fancy, later recorded by Lewis and the MJQ). Lewis had also contributed S'il Vous Plait (which was recorded live but not at the studio dates), a blues with a bridge, giving an early example of his experimentation with form.
Lewis's own playing owed a lot to Count Basie, the prime mover in the less-is-more ethic, while Milt Jackson played with a very fluid, clear-thinking style that seldom moved from the shadow of the blues. This uniquely complimentary, creative duality was undersprung with the unobtrusive, yet powerful swing of Heath and Clarke (later Kay). Almost at once the group created a classic of jazz, a performance of Django. In the context of its time - it was recorded in December 1954 - the absence of frantic virtuosity must have seemed surreal. Although written by Lewis, it revealed the MJQ's shared aesthetic and as Martin Williams has pointed out, it is one of the few truly successful extended works in the jazz repertory.
In one stroke Lewis demonstrated that spontaneity could be preserved within tightly conceived structures - just as Ellington had done before him. Here were two distinct sections, first a dirge that evoked the loss to jazz of the gypsy guitarist, to whom it is dedicated, and a brighter second section that featured the improvisation in a way that did not sacrifice individuality or emotional power. Both Lewis and Jackson deliver intense, coiled-spring solos that relate to the thematic material at hand, another point of departure from Hard Bop (Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins excepted). Lewis's riff-like accompaniment, like a miniature big band, would become a feature of his playing with the MJQ, providing the obstacle that allowed Jackson's inspiration to take flight. Lewis gradually imposed the same degree of compositional organisation he demonstrated on Django to all the group's material.
On one early composition, Ralph's New Blues, a straightforward 12-bar theme, Lewis employed a stretto device where the piano, vibes and bass overlap each other, as in certain types of fugue. Indeed, it was to Bach, the supreme master of fugue, whom Lewis often turned for inspiration. After all, jazz used European harmonies, the tempered scale, counterpoint and simple ternary and binary forms. Why not borrow more complicated structures to enhance their music?
But just as the tempered scale was bent to accommodate the blue note and counterpoint had been improvised and personalised from New Orleans ensembles to the Big Bands through to Bop, Lewis took devices from classical music and adapted them to his own purpose. Blues on Bach opens with Regret?, based on Bach's Chorale Prelude for Organ, The Old Year Has Now Passed Away. How appropriate that Lewis uses a Chorale to reach his audience. The term comes from choralis - 'belonging to the chorus' - and at the initiative of Martin Luther himself, the Latin hymns of the Catholic Church were translated into the vernacular so the congregation could participate in singing. The Chorale reached it peak in the works of Bach, who harmonised hundreds of known Chorales and wrote many more. Thus the Chorale, begun in the early 16th Century to bring sacred music closer to the people, grew into a great art embracing all genres of sacred and secular music. No doubt Lewis could see how this music, intended to resonate with the common man, still spoke down the ages with its great humanity and the discipline and passion with which he adapts it gives a key to the MJQ's universality.
Lewis opens Regret? on harpsichord, bringing an Old World gentility to jazz while staying close to Bach's own writing. Jackson moves in ethereal counterpoint, while Heath's bass resonates at the cadence points as Kay's shimmering percussion frames the moment. Kay's subtlety, taste and flexibility were perfect for the group - a more flamboyant drummer would have upset the balance of the group. His ability to alter the complexion of pieces by varying the texture of his accompaniment with judicious use of cymbals or triangle, together with his finely honed sense of time, coalesced the group dynamic. His impeccable swing on Blues in B Flat, perhaps the most basic form of jazz expressionism, lifts and locks with Heath's bass to provoke Jackson into an exemplary solo that makes masterful use of the rising line, pushed and prodded by Lewis's Big Band riffing on piano behind him.
Rise Up In the Morning, based on Bach's Chorale Sleeper's Awake, is again opened by Lewis on harpsichord, and is memorable for Kay's shimmering, aluminium backdrop. Blues in A Minor borrows a melodic strand from St. James Infirmary during Lewis's exposition of the theme but is soon claimed by the MJQ in a classic performance. Jackson releases a soaring solo - here was one of the most consistent soloists in modern jazz who reserved a very special quality and level of music-making for the group - that is contrasted by Lewis's fluid elegance. The solo by Heath highlights his two great virtues within the ensemble - perfect intonation and a sound that is both full and round.
Precious Joy, adapted from Bach's Chorale Jesu Joy of Man's Desiring, becomes a swinging Alleluia that captures both the essence of Bach and the MJQ. Jackson's Blues in C Minor reveal in Lewis's solo the sense of structure, development, balance and contrast he applied in arranging the music for the quartet. Don't Stop This Train, is adapted from Bach's Fugue in D Minor, Clavierbuechlein. Blues in H (B) and Tears From the Children (based on Prelude No. 8 from The Well Tempered Clavier), along with the earlier Blues in A Minor, would be featured almost exactly a year later at the group's 'final' concert at Carnegie Hall on 25 November 1974. Of course, they eventually reunited after what Lewis called "a seven year vacation" in October 1981 with a concert at Tokyo's Budokan Hall.
Blues on Bach remains among their finest achievements. On release it received a rare 5 Star Award by Downbeat magazine, who declared it a "masterpiece", and similar praise was echoed throughout the jazz press. Ironically it never made Billboard's Jazz Chart, although Goodbye, a CTI release by Milt Jackson from around the same time with flautist Hubert Laws, did. While the latter is long forgotten, the former remains an important album in the discography of one of jazz's most enduring small groups. Lewis's Blues may have evoked Bach, but the result finally emerged stamped with his own personality, demonstrating that the imposition of unusual forms need not mean rigidity. Indeed, Lewis convincingly demonstrated that jazz expressionism could rest comfortably on unfamiliar structures, quietly signposting a direction into the future.
Source: STUART NICHOLSON. Author of Reminiscing in Tempo: A Portrait of Duke Ellington, Jazz-Rock: A History, Billie Holiday, Ella Fitzgerald, Jazz: The 1980s Resurgence and is co-author with Max Harrison and Eric Thacker of The Essential Jazz Records Vol. 2: Modernism to Postmodernism