Picks and Pans Review: Mjq 40

updated 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 02/10/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

The Modern Jazz Quartet

Like the Energizer bunny, only more so, the Modern Jazz Quartet keeps going and going and going. It's got a better drummer, for one thing.

That drummer, Connie Kay, is a man who once said he'd never heard a drum solo he didn't think went on too long. That's because in his modulated way, on a small drum kit flourishing with cymbals, chimes and triangles, he says more in a few measures than many drummers say in entire tirades.

Kay replaced the bebop legend Kenny Clarke in 1955, and the MJQ hasn't had a personnel change since. It did have a hiatus, from 1974 until 1981, but basically its heart has been ticking since 1946 when pianist John Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson began to be featured, within Dizzy Gillespie's big band, as a refreshing quartet with Ray Brown on bass and Clarke on drums. Shortly after Percy Heath replaced Brown in 1952, the Modern Jazz Quartet was officially born.

It's easy to take for granted something that hums along for 40 years, following its own course, intersecting fashion only by coincidence—always subtle, always excellent, always quiet. Quiet? A few years ago Lewis was asked about that. The pianist got, in his quiet way, a little riled. "Loud," he said. "I think I play pretty loud."

And he does. It's hard to think of a more deftly melodic, insistently rhythmic and constantly challenging accompanist in jazz. He is also a distinctive soloist and as demanding a music director—the MJQ has no "leader"—as Basie or Ellington were of their bands. And the parallel goes beyond the influence of Basie in Lewis's strong, right-hand single-note lines.

The MJQ is, in a sense, the world's smallest big band. The idea from the outset was to avoid soloist-with-rhythm-section jams and use counterpoint, structure and composition to heighten group improvising and explore every shade of the blues. In recent years Lewis has essentially recomposed old songs and added new ones ("That Slavic Smile," for example) that are every bit as beguiling as "Django" and other early classics.

Ardent fans will already have many of the albums from which the 54 tracks on these four CDs were selected. Only two cuts (both dandy) are previously unissued. So why shell out the bucks? This discerningly selected five-hour retrospective demonstrates the MJQ's remarkable consistency over four decades, as well as the stimulating Ellington—Johnny Hodges tension and interplay between Lewis and the Niagara talent of Jackson. The closer you listen to the MJQ, the more you hear in it—something that cannot be said for the Energizer bunny. (Atlantic)

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