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JAZZ | Spotlight

Not the MJQ, but a New John Lewis Quartet Album

February 04, 2001|DON HECKMAN | Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

There is a famous story, perhaps apocryphal, that describes an incident in which pianist-composer John Lewis once fined vibraphonist Milt Jackson for showing up for a Modern Jazz Quartet concert wearing the wrong color socks. True or not, the tale defines both players' roles in a group that for decades was viewed by many as the ultimate example of conservative chamber jazz music.

Some criticized what they viewed as Lewis' excessive infatuation with classical music and forms. That criticism was exacerbated, to some extent, by his insistence that the group perform in black tuxedos, as often as possible in concert settings. And, although the superficial trappings in no way diminished the quality of the improvising or the urgency of the group's capacity to swing, there was, among some jazz fans, the tendency to view Lewis as the stiff, conservative member of the band, and Jackson as the loose swinger.

In retrospect, neither criticism seems to hold much water. Lewis' desire for a classical-style presentation of the MJQ may seem a bit stark, but has to be viewed in the context of the times, when jazz was rarely heard in concert settings and musicians were just emerging from the zoot-suit era.

More important, his fascination with classical idioms resulted in some stunning pieces--"Django" among them--subtly urging jazz into areas beyond the period's familiar theme-variations-theme format. A close rehearing of the MJQ's albums, especially those recorded in concert, reveals the many subtle, supportive ways in which Lewis' brisk, sometimes riff-like, sometimes contrapuntal accompaniment was a primal factor in the urgent swing of Jackson's soloing.

The MJQ was the primary vehicle for Lewis' composing for years. But more recently he has been exploring formats that flow from the piano as the central pivot. The first was the 1999 album "Explorations," one of his very few solo outings. In it, he played standards--"Willow Weep for Me," "I'll Remember April," "Sweet Georgia Brown"--and originals such as "Afternoon in Paris" and "Django" with a pristine clarity, a feeling for tone and an irrepressible sense of rhythm.

His latest album, "Explorations II" (****, Atlantic Records), widens his musical palette with the addition of guitar, bass and drums. The instrumentation obviously varies in timbre from the MJQ's lineup. But I suspect that Lewis, 80, was simply thinking more in terms of framing his piano in a fashion considerably different from the symbiotic interaction of the MJQ's performances.

In fact, it is his piano that is front and center in a collection of material that includes new pieces as well as a reprise of "Django" and a pair of standards, "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "What Is This Thing Called Love?" There is also a blues episode titled "One! Of Parker's Moods" that uses Charlie Parker's classic solo on "Parker's Mood" as the seed material for Lewis' variations. "Afternoon in Paris" emerges again in a revised setting, retitled "That! Afternoon In Paris," and there is a lovely rendering of his atmospheric "Trieste."

Like Picasso's late drawings, the album is the product of a mature and gifted artistic imagination, reduced to its most vital essence. Tone, again, is a constant factor, especially apparent in the CD's superb recorded sound. And one is continually amazed by the sheer airiness of Lewis' harmonies, by his capacity (like Ellington's and Strayhorn's) to create such implied chordal density with the use of only a few notes. Add to that precisely articulated lines--generating swing seemingly out of nowhere--and the music in this deceptively unadorned collection is utterly irresistible.

Speaking of Ellington, his (and Strayhorn's) music shows up on a new album from another veteran pianist, France's Martial Solal. Perhaps because he has elected to remain a European jazz artist, Solal has never quite received the recognition that his admirable talents fully deserve.

His new CD, "Martial Solal Dodecaband Plays Ellington" (*** 1/2, Dreyfus Jazz), is a dramatic shift of emphasis from his Grammy-nominated duet album with Johnny Griffin, "In & Out." In this case, Solal's orchestrating abilities are on full display. Working with a 12-piece ensemble, he has created variations on, among others, "Satin Doll," "In a Sentimental Mood" and "Take the 'A' Train" that are surely among the most radical reworkings of these pieces ever done. Listen, to mention only one small example, to the astoundingly dissonant yet immensely effective restaging of "Caravan," transforming it into a much larger, extended work. There are dozens of other fascinating passages, interspersed with excellent soloing by Solal and playing by an all-European band whose individual and collective efforts underscore the thoroughly global reach of jazz.

REISSUES: Blue Note has put out five new CDs as part of its continuing release of material from the Capitol and Pacific Jazz labels:

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