Album reviews

Modern Jazz Quartet – ‘The Montreux Years’ (rec. 1985-93)

Modern Jazz QuartetThe Montreux Years

(Montreux Sounds BMGCAT733CD. Album review by Len Weinreich)

Not yet a subscriber of our Wednesday Breakfast Headlines?
Join the mailing list for a weekly roundup of Jazz News.


Shortly after the name changed from the Milt Jackson Quartet to the Modern Jazz Quartet (MJQ), critics started honing their knives. Most hostile comments came from those who preferred less formality and polish: “effete”, “too restrained”, “over-subtle”, “too Baroque” and “neutered”.

However, if people closed their ears to four distinguished masters working together seamlessly, it was their loss. If they pretended deafness to a stimulating interplay of talents, hard cheese. They ignored the ability of Milt Jackson to take wing and soar and the artistry of John Lewis’s economical precision. They disregarded the inherent swing, mastery of tension/release and passion for the blues that constituted the MJQ’s musical core (after all, it wasn’t called the Modern Jazz Quartet for nothing). With hindsight, the hostility was a by-product of intolerance (not helped by the group’s popularity) towards a different kind of chamber jazz.

Fortunately, as this new album proves, time has obliterated most of the disagreements and embarrassed any surviving detractors. Recorded live in concert halls rather than the sterility of the studio, it’s a collection of eleven performances captured over a dozen years in front of enthusiastic audiences (occasionally over-enthusiastic, inevitably clapping their hands on beats one and three when the Quartet finds a groove) at the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland.

The series begins in 1989 with the MJQ’s version of Duke Ellington’s dramatic ‘Ko-Ko’, four musicians paying hommage to the magnificent 40s Ellington orchestra, opening with the spiky call-and-response blues theme before Lewis vaults into a solo, meticulously spare and bristling with energy. Then Jackson takes flight over backing piano riffs and, later, Percy Heath enhances his reputation on bass.

During some point in the MJQ’s extensive globetrotting programme, the group visited Dubrovnik on the Croatian coast, evidently an exhilarating experience leading to the second track, also from a 1989 concert, Lewis’s extended composition, the impressionistic and delightful ‘A Day In Dubrovnik’.

Then we leap forward four years to 1993 and revisit Lewis’s celebrated requiem for Romani jazz guitarist Django Rheinhardt. Over decades of performance, ‘Django’s’ tempo has increased by tiny increments but at no cost to the piece’s poignancy. The plangent, repeated bass theme at the heart of the tribute remains intact. Also from a 1993 concert, the Quartet digs deep into Lewis’s’ ‘Blues In A Minor’, with opportunity to marvel at Heath’s mastery of time and his instrument encouraged by Lewis’s sublime comping (arguably the best minimalist jazz pianist since Basie). And throughout, Connie Kay proves that he was the right guy at the right kit, able to contribute the right amount of push, pulse, propulsion, expression and effects wherever necessary.

The album overflows with 12-bar blues, at which the MJQ excelled. To the audible delight of a 1985 audience, we hear the group lock itself into a driving treatment of Milt Jackson’s ‘Bags’ Groove’. And, even though they’d worked through the number on countless occasions, both Jackson and Lewis still reveal fresh facets, phrases and athletic tricks with time.

A number of European movie directors commissioned film scores from John Lewis and the MJQ played on a few soundtracks. From No Sun In Venice, we hear ‘The Golden Striker’ recorded in 1993 and, from a 1987 concert, ‘One Never Knows’ from Odds Against Tomorrow.

‘Le Cannet’, another impressionistic piece Lewis composition, was inspired by a hill village on the Côte d’Azur in the South-of-France. Recorded in 1985, it showcases Lewis’s style, a series of perfectly placed single notes, occasionally interspersed with block chords in a blissful unaccompanied solo. Then it’s Milt Jackson’s turn to performs miracles. The track that follows is all Jackson. Unaccompanied, he finds new resonances as he meditates on Eden Ahbez’s ‘Nature Boy’, once a monster hit for Nat ‘King’ Cole in 1947.

At a concert two years later, the Quartet, with fiery drum breaks, ramps the excitement, riffing like a big band on a romping version of Harry Carney and Duke Ellington’s ‘Rockin’ In Rhythm’, finding an irresistible groove (try to ignore the unhip, unrhythmic clapping, the bane of many continental festivals).

The final track, from 1990, is Milt Jackson’s ‘True Blues’, a thrilling mid-tempo, loose-limbed swinger, constantly simmering steered with a compelling backbeat from the staunch Connie Kay. The crowd goes ballistic.

The album is dedicated to the memory of Claude Nobs, legendary founder and director of the Montreux Festival, who died tragically after a skiing accident in 2013. And Tony Cousins was responsible for the excellent audio restoration and mastering in London.

Milt Jackson, vibraphone; John Lewis, piano; Percy Heath, bass; Connie Kay, drums. Recorded live at concerts at the Casino and Auditorium Stravinski at Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, between 1985 – 1993.

Categories: Album reviews, Reviews

2 replies »

  1. Saw them twice at the Royal Festival Hall, including their first playing of “England’s Carol”. Still have several 78s, including “Point and Counterpoint”. Wonderful memories of one of the best quartets ever.

  2. Compliments to Len Weinreich on the excellence of this review – so well written and informative! Much appreciated.

Leave a Reply