The Modern Jazz Quartet. Fontessa. Pyramid.
John Lewis (piano); Milt Jackson (vibraphone); Percy Heath (bass); Connie Kay (drums).
Pristine Audio PAJZ 011 TT: 74:04
Bach meets bop. The Second World War brought changes not only in jazz but in jazz players. It saw the eclipse of the intuitive entertainer like Louis Armstrong and Chick Webb and the rise of the schooled musician. One was not necessarily better than the other, but the music got a different emphasis. Jazz people began to demand the respect afforded to classical musicians. One of the early postwar developments was the so-called "third stream" -- jazz and classical flowing together into something new. In conception, the musicians of the third stream went beyond earlier classical composers who used jazz elements in their work -- Gershwin, Milhaud, and Stravinsky come to mind -- more or less as exotica appended to an essentially Modernist idiom. These new people wanted to combine the argumentative tautness and formal sheen of classical music with the improvisations of jazz. In many ways, Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn anticipated them, but enough new arrangers, composers, and players to earn them their own place.
One such musician, John Lewis epitomized this trend. His group, the Modern Jazz Quartet, sold albums, played all the dates they wanted, and recorded with other popular artists, either in jazz or on the edges of it, as well as with classical musicians. All four members came out of Dizzy Gillespie's band. The group played in conservative suits and ties, and the atmosphere it generated resembled more a chamber-music recital than a club date. The group made it clear that this was music to listen to, not talk over.
As to the characteristic modus of the MJQ, both Heath and Kay tended to provide a subtle rhythmic support, although both soloed quite well. Jackson took the role of star improviser and indeed gave the group most of its jazz cred. Lewis, an elegant pianist, provided most of the artistic direction. He composed originals and provided the arrangements. Lewis could be described as Bach-mad. Many of his originals incorporated fugal procedures. In 1984, he even recorded three volumes of Bach's preludes and fugues, including some from the Well-Tempered Clavier.
Jazz fans have long considered the albums Fontessa and Pyramid among the best by the group, perhaps even essential. I can't pretend to know much about jazz myself, since I came to it pretty late from a classical background and still feel like I'm playing catch-up. Indulge me while I say things obvious to many of you.
The two albums generally differ in their emphases. If we think of locating the MJQ somewhere between the poles of classical and jazz, then Fontessa lies closer to the classical end, while Pyramid resembles more other jazz of its time. The "classical" pieces tend to build on classical music's harmonic bread and butter, modulating through the circle of fifths, while the jazz pieces either employ blues changes or the harmonic skeleton of a particular pop tune. On a few of the tracks, however, the group establishes an equilibrium that makes you believe that a union of jazz and classical might just be possible.
NOTE: Both albums appeared in mono and stereo versions. The stereo Fontessa was plagued by a prominent hum, probably the result of the 1956 engineers' unfamiliarity with new equipment. Ever since the album came out, the inside word advised one to get the mono version rather than the stereo. However, Pristine has cleaned up the hum. You still hear a bit of tape hiss, but not enough to drive off anybody but the fussiest. In short, Pristine's stereo re-issue more than holds its own.
Fontessa opens with the Lewis classic "Versailles." It features a virtuosically polyphonic conversation between Jackson and Lewis. Connie Kay adds an inventive timbre on the triangle, cymbals, and rim that plays off of Jackson's vibraphone. This really is as tightly-scripted as a classical work.
"Angel Eyes" features Milt Jackson decorating the Matt Dennis tune with baroque filigree and John Lewis providing understated commentary that functions as the tune's spine.
"Fontessa," the big work on the album at 11 minutes, begins like a baroque vocal adagio. It then acquires a graceful swing. At its best, it shows off each member of the quartet as an equal chamber partner. It features an elegant solo by Lewis, with solo opportunities toward the end for Heath and Kay over a harmonically amorphous texture, akin to a cadenza, and ends with a return to the baroque.
At the opening, "Over the Rainbow" presents a duet of Jackson and Lewis, each player in perfect equilibrium. It ends with the melody in imitation among Jackson, Lewis, and Heath.
The stereo take of Milt Jackson's "Bluesology" differs from the mono. It remains a frame surrounding a series of blues choruses split between Jackson and Lewis. However, not only do the choruses differ, but Jackson's performance is livelier and more nervous and Lewis's contribution harmonically more complex. I actually prefer this take to the mono.
"Willow, Weep for Me" starts with Lewis echoing Jackson's lead. This is one of those tracks where the group achieves a balance most classical chamber groups would (and should) envy. Yet it remains a solid jazz track.
The album closes with Dizzy Gillespie's "Woody 'n' You," in which the quartet pay tribute to their roots in a driving, straightahead track, while the overall attack and touch remains light. This impresses as great energy kept under a lid, thus increasing the excitement.
"Vendome," the opener on Pyramid, is another Lewis fugue, rather tightly scripted but a wonderful fugue nevertheless. The long track on the album, bassist Ray Brown's "Pyramid (Blues for Junior)," consists, as its title indicates, of a long, slow meditation on the blues. In the first half, Jackson solos with Lewis commenting. In the second, Lewis leads off with a long solo, Jackson silent, then the two duet as equals. Compared to "Fontessa," "Pyramid" has a stronger, more focused narrative, possibly because the blues gives both Lewis and Jackson all the structure they need, while in "Fontessa" they seem to be feeling their way.
Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing" gets a radical reshaping, with the first phrase condensed to half its length. However, it relaxes into its original form during the solos. Past half-way in, Lewis and Jackson get all polyphonic on us and then Lewis creates a remarkable "one-finger" solo. Heath brings the bass line into equal prominence with Lewis, and the take closes out with a reprise of the beginning.
I don't know whether Lewis's "Django" is a jazz classic but it is one of my favorite bop pieces along with Gillespie's "Night in Tunisia." Without ever quoting the object of its affection, Django Reinhart, it nevertheless evokes the gypsy element in Thirties European jazz.
As opposed to the race-to-the-finish versions exemplified by people like Les Paul and Mary Ford, the quartet's "How High the Moon" takes its sweet time, even in the relatively quicker second half of the track. Even then the excitement doesn't come down to tempo, but to the polyphonic exchanges between Jackson and Lewis. Percy Heath's bass holds the grave first half together, providing the structural cable for Jackson's filament to wind itself around. The album closes quietly with Jim Hall's ballad "Romaine."
Both albums epitomize Cool, but don't mistake either for easy listening or wallpaper. The stereo version of Fontessa brings out both the surrounding space and the interactions among the players in a way that mono simply can't. A winner.
S.G.S. (June 2015)