The Modern Jazz Quartet – 35th Anniversary Tour (1987)

by | Nov 10, 2005 | DVD & Blu-ray Video Reviews | 0 comments

The Modern Jazz Quartet – 35th Anniversary Tour (1987)

John Lewis, p.; Milt Jackson, vibes; Percy Heath, bass; Connie Kay, dr.
Studio: TDK/EuroArts (Distr. by Naxos)
Video: 4:3 full screen color, no region coding
Audio: DTS 5.1; DD 5.1, PCM stereo
Length: 57 minutes
Rating: *****

Please take into account that the MJQ has been probably my favorite
jazz group all my life when I say this is the most enjoyable jazz
concert on DVD I have ever seen.  It was expertly taped during a
music festival in Freiburg Germany in l987 and memorializes the world’s
longest-running jazz combo in great form. They were together for so
long that some of us thought they would always be around; yet sadly all
four of them have now passed on.

John Lewis was the leader of the MJQ and composed most of the
music.  He made no bones about strongly appreciating European
classical music and especially Bach, and his music is full of classical
forms such as fugues.  The MJQ epitomized the “chamber jazz”
style, and not only in their sound.  Lewis insisted from the start
that they wear tuxedos and carry themselves onstage as if they were a
string quartet.  This was criticized by some jazz aficionados but
raised the MJQ in the minds of most audiences and got their more
serious listening attention.  In the 50s and 60s they were right
up there with the Dave Brubeck Quartet in popularity.

The camera focuses frequently on Lewis’ right hand work.  We see
the precise and controlled single-line improvisations he spins out in
the upper registers of the piano.  The phrase a fan observed about
Milt Jackson: “If he ever did once play a non-swinging note, it must
have been in private” can certainly apply as well to his bandmate
Lewis.  We also see the eye contact between Lewis and Jackson at
various points in the music. There are many sheets of music manuscript
on the piano in front of Lewis for pieces such as the concluding
Dubrovnik Suite.  There are also a couple of flies plaguing him
and walking on the manuscripts like moving whole notes. Ah, the
challenges of live performance!  There is also a humorous
translation problem (or maybe just a hearing problem) on one of the
tunes: although correct in the provided note booklet and on the back of
the box, the next-to-last tune is identified onscreen with the
superimposed title “Backgroove” (Bags’ Groove). Speaking of Bags, it’s
great to see him in action, hitting every note with the same precision
and care as Lewis does on the piano. His valued contribution to the
group is the singing, flowing sound he achieves on the vibes.
Ellington’s Rockin’ in Rhythm gets the concert off to a swinging start
with a tune probably familiar to most of the audience. The 1987 version
of Lewis’ big hit Django is quite different and more exploratory
from  the many versions I have in my collection.  (In fact I
once put together a mix tape of 90 minutes of different treatments of
Django.) I realized perhaps for the first time that the piece has
almost none of the gypsy jazz sound of its dedicatee’s music – it is
more of a blues elegy or threnody.

The DTS 5.1 surround is excellent and the spatial origin of the sounds
seems to be more in accord with the onscreen images than with many
music videos – the vibes toward the right channel and the piano toward
the left.  The PCM stereo option is also very transparent and may
be preferred by some users, either with or without Pro Logic II
processing.

Tracks: Rockin’ in Rhythm, Echoes, Kansas City Breaks, Django, Summertime, Bags’ Groove, A Day in Dubrovnik.

– John Sunier

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