The Milt Jackson Quartet
The reunion of the Modern Jazz Quartet in 1982 after a nine-year split was a momentous event not only for listeners but also for the four men themselves. When they broke up in 1974 after 22 years on the road, they were as tired—and as tired of each other—as four people can get. They had made history, but not, they felt, a commensurate amount of money. Money—handsome fees, plus the promise of first-class treatment-got them together again. But other things have kept them together, including a renewed appreciation of one another’s talents and the expansion and maturation of their abilities during the years apart. Despite its awkward excess of titles, the MJQ’s first recording since the reunion conveys the quartet’s unchanging elegance and also some of its new warmth. Especially remarkable are That Slavic Smile, inspired by. pianist John Lewis’ Yugoslavia-born wife, Mirjana, and Sacha’s March, a tune Lewis once wrote for his son, now a Harvard sophomore. In both those tracks, deceptively simple themes unfold to reveal deep, unabashed sentiments. Lewis’ dreamily flowing yet intensely concentrated playing gives musical expression to his oft stated admiration for Count Basie. Lewis himself must be counted, in his own unique way, an important spiritual successor to Basie. Connie Kay, a subtle, often underappreciated drummer, expresses his playfulness on his Sacha’s March solo, which is the song’s keystone. Bassist Percy Heath’s fluent and bluesy good spirits romp throughout his own Watergate Blues. Yet overall the record makes a somewhat more subdued impression than the MJQ makes in concert. Maybe in the studio, Lewis’ perfectionism chills the group’s passion.
During the MJQ diaspora, Percy and his saxophonist younger brother Jimmy started the Heath Brothers Band, which their youngest brother, Tootie, joined on drums. Their newest effort is a sunny affair, swinging easily and enlivened by guests Slide Hampton (trombone) and Joe Kennedy Jr. (violin). Vibraphonist Milt Jackson had his own group long before the MJQ breakup. Bassist Ray Brown and drummer Mickey Roker are regulars, but the big news of Soul Route is pianist Gene Harris. By turn funky, churchy, winkingly roguish and tender, he turns in a classic performance. At least since he made Soul Meeting with Ray Charles in 1962, Jackson has always put the word “soul” in his album titles. It’s no affectation. His feeling for the blues surpasses praise. His uncanny consistency in or out of the MJQ is matched only by the soaring beauty and effortlessness of what he plays. No less a peer than Ray Brown, one of the key figures in modern bass playing, has been reduced to head scratching when considering the Jackson phenomenon. “He just turns on a tap and out it comes,” Brown marvels. “What I want to know is, where does he get it from?” (MJQ: Pablo; Heath: Antilles; Jackson: Pablo)