The Modern Jazz Quartet; The return of a class act

The Modern Jazz Quartet is back, really back, and playing in the jazz clubs again. The group - Milt Jackson on vibes; John Lewis on piano; Connie Kay on drums; and Percy Heath on bass - had disbanded in l974, after 22 musically and critically successful years - an unusual length of time for any jazz ensemble to stay together. Then, in l980, they reformed and gave a concert at Avery Fisher Hall, and another in '8l.

Former MJQ fans began to wonder if there wasn't something more to these concerts than just a nostalgic reunion, and sure enough, it wasn't long before word was out - the MJQ is back together again, playing in the clubs and going on tour.

Of all the top jazz groups over the past few decades, the MJQ was always singled out as one of the most distinctive. Visually, their image stood in stark contrast to that of many other bands. Always impeccably dressed, they gave off an aura of class and dignity, resembling a chamber ensemble rather than a jazz combo. Musically, they captured the ears of the jazz public with their tightly arranged mixture of swing and bop, gracefully but liberally laced with classical influences.

Now that they're back, old MJQ fans are naturally curious. Will they sound the same, will they take a new direction, will they still play some of their great compositions - ''The Golden Striker,'' ''Afternoon in Paris,'' ''Django''?A recent engagement here at the Blue Note in Greenwich Village may have answered some of those questions.

Unfortunately, I heard the group on a night that may not have been representative of the current performance level of the MJQ. Although vibist Milt Jackson was in excellent form, the other three were generally lackluster, and often downright bloodless. The quartet seemed to be bogged down in written music - most of it apparently new compositions. In fact, they had so many pieces of music to deal with that Jackson and bassist Percy Heath had propped expandable window screens on their music stands to provide the extra length they needed to accomodate it all!

The set opened with a lengthy suite by Lewis that the group had never performed in public before, and which gave the audience the impression that they were at a rehearsal. The rather funereal mood of this piece was relieved somewhat by a catchy little bass feature entitled ''Watergate Blues'' and Jackson's solo on ''That Slavic Smile,'' but things never really got warmed up until they played a couple of their old tunes - ''Bags' Groove'' and ''The Golden Striker.'' At that point, the audience warmed up, too.

One can only hope that after the quartet has been together a little longer, the newer material will smooth out and become an integral part of their repertoire. Perhaps they feel that the casual atmosphere of a club is the best place to work out the kinks in their new arrangements - it's hard to say.

Nevertheless, the four seem delighted to be back, and, for the most part, looked like they were enjoying themselves on the bandstand. Commented drummer Connie Kay on their break between sets ''We've been playing together for 24 -some-odd years. We're old friends, we're buddies, you know, so it's nice playing with each other again.''

Vibist Milt Jackson seemed to be happy to be back in a club again.

''It's a warmer atmosphere than a concert hall,'' Kay added, ''because you're much closer to the people! . . The people who come to see us know the type of music we play and who we are, and they're usually quiet. We're not a loud band.''

Why did they get back together? Kay had a simple, direct answer: ''Money. Someone offered us some money.''

As to why they split up in the first place, his answer, again, was ''money, the same thing that brought us back together.''

Jackson explained: ''In terms of the quality of the group and everything that it represented, people assume that we were four of the richest guys in the world , but the money part was very, very disappointing.''

But it's that music, Jackson says, that counts:

''My conception of a progressive artist is someone who makes some improvement every day when they play, whether it's with the same group or not. If you have that outlook, it will enhance whichever direction you go. This is true of this group because each one has the versatiliy, and when you bring it all together, it makes a very unique thing - it can't be duplicated.''

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