Josef Woodard
February 07, 1992 AT 05:00 AM EST


Current Status
In Season

We gave it an A

Poetic justice exists after all. As the Modern Jazz Quartet cracks the big four-oh, current fashion in jazz has come around to them again: The group’s crisp articulation, exotic detours, and essentially conservative harmonic palette haven’t sounded so fresh and so, well, modern in years. This timely and marvelous four-CD retrospective sheds light on the origins and evolution of the group’s deceptively genteel blend of bop, blues, and baroque-period classical music. These musicians were always rebels with a cause, but a refined and subtle one involving the seamless merger of styles both inside and outside the conventional jazz vocabulary; they also favored intimate cross talk, along with the synergistic roles of the four players — pianist John Lewis, vibraharpist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath, and drummer Connie Kay-and an acute balance between the written and the spontaneous. MJQ40 is an elegant, eclectic spin down the group’s four decades, with music that ranges from Lewis’ curveball arrangement of Thelonious Monk’s ”’Round Midnight” to the pianist’s swinging adaptations of his beloved Bach and his own intricate studies. MJQ loves the generous creative spirit of jazz enough never to accept its venerable conventions at face value. Long may they swing, with their own sweet sense of time. A

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