John Lewis - piano; Milt Jackson - vibraphone; Percy Heath - bass; Connie Kay - drums
In a program titled "A Jazz Salute to the American Song," which had various artists paying tribute to the contributions of Irving Berlin, Cole Porter, Jimmy Van Heusen, Harold Arlen, Alec Wilder, Rodgers and Hart, Fats Waller and Duke Ellington-Billy Strayhorn, the Modern Jazz Quartet paid a heartfelt homage to George Gershwin with performances of material from the 1935 American folk opera, Porgy and Bess. Following an eloquent and insightful introduction by George Wein, in which he notes the importance of such popular melodies as "I Can't Get Started," "All The Things You Are" and "I've Got Rhythm" in the annals of jazz, the MJQ takes the Philharmonic stage to extrapolate on Gershwin in their inimitable fashion.
'Cool,' 'elegant' and 'genteel' are all adjectives used to describe the MJQ's pristine approach to jazz. The group brought that same refined sensibility to bear on Gershwin's masterwork in its 1965 Atlantic recording of Porgy and Bess. The July 3rd set opens with a dramatic reading of "Summertime" which features a luminous contrapuntal blend between Lewis' piano and Jackson's vibes. Anchored by Percy Heath's woody-toned bass and underscored by drummer Connie Kay's subtle brushwork, this sublime version conveys the chamber-like aesthetic that the MJQ is so well known for while also delivering a deep blues feel in the potent solos by Lewis and Jackson.
Next up is a syncopated run through the jaunty "There's A Boat Dat's Leavin' Soon For New York," featuring Jackson's vibes carrying the buoyant melody on top of Kay's shuffling beat and Heath's walking bass lines. As they begin to extrapolate blithely on the theme midway through, Jackson opens up and wails. Lewis follows with a piano solo that is steeped in the church. Their deeply moving rendition of the sentimental ballad "I Loves You, Porgy" is a beautiful vehicle for Jackson's expressive powers on the vibes. Lewis, the consummate accompanist, feeds him harmonic suggestions that nudge the great vibraphonist in subtle ways during the course of his heroic solo here. Lewis himself follows with a solo that applies Basie's "less is more" approach while also delivering it with the delicate, painterly touch of a Cezanne or Monet. They conclude their appearance at the 1973 Newport Jazz Festival with a stark reading of the lament, "My Man's Gone Now." The piece is highlighted by a mournful solo piano interlude by Lewis that fully demonstrates the majesty of the blues.
Formed in 1952 by pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke, the Modern Jazz Quartet played at the first Newport Jazz Festival in 1954 with an intriguing variation on the lineup that featured Horace Silver on piano. The following year they appeared at George Wein's festival with the more familiar lineup of Lewis, Jackson, Heath and drummer Connie Kay, the same unit that later appeared at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival. Their genteel, neo-classical approach to counterpoint, blending blues and fugues, marked the MJQ as one of the most inventive and successful jazz groups of the '50s and '60s.
The year after this triumphant 1973 Philharmonic Hall performance, vibraphonist Jackson would leave the group to focus on a solo career. The members of the Modern Jazz Quartet would subsequently reorganize for special reunion concerts, first in 1981 to play a festival in Japan (documented on Reunion at Budokan 1981 on the Pablo label), then with a string of albums through the '80s. They last recorded together on 1992's Celebration, an all-star project commemorating the group's 40th anniversary featuring guest appearances by singer Bobby McFerrin, vocal group Take 6, trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, his sax-playing older brother Branford Marsalis, alto sax legend Phil Woods, trumpeter Harry "Sweets" Edison and tenor saxophonist Jimmy Heath. Albert "Tootie" Heath took over the drum chair after Connie Kay's death on November 30, 1994. But with Milt Jackson's death from liver cancer on October 9, 1999, the MJQ was effectively over. Musical director John Lewis passed away on March 29, 2001 and the last surviving member of the MJQ, bassist Percy Heath, died on April 28, 2005.
-Written by Bill Milkowski