John Lewis - piano; Milt Jackson - vibraphone; Percy Heath - bass; Connie Kay - drums
Formed in 1952, 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 (subbing for John Lewis), Milt Jackson on vibraphone, Percy Heath on bass, and Kenny Clarke on drums. The following year they appeared at George Wein's festival with the more familiar lineup of Lewis, Jackson, Heath, and drummer Connie Kay. That same unit appeared at the 1959 Newport Jazz Festival with their unique approach to blending chamber-like delicacy with blues feel and jazz improvisation, and re-visited the festival in 1965.
They open their Thursday evening performance with Milt Jackson's "True Blues," an earthy, laid back number which was originally recorded by the group in 1952 for their self-titled debut. Kay initially underscores the proceedings with some supple brushwork, as Heath lays down some deep grooving walking bass lines. Lewis' piano comping is sparse behind Jackson's profoundly blue vibes solo, as Kay switches to sticks and eases into a lazy, behind-the-beat shuffle. Lewis then brings his own blues-tinged chops to bear on a brilliant piano solo. "Newport Miss" is a catchy new piece written by Lewis for this occasion of the 11th annual Newport Jazz Festival.
A sublime version of George Gershwin's "Summertime" expertly dips into that chamber-like aesthetic that the MJQ is so well known for, while also leaving plenty of room for personal expression in the individual improvisations. Jackson's shimmering vibes solo here is one of the highlights of the set. "Home" is a jaunty blues number co-composed by Lewis and David Murray (and which had been recorded in big band form earlier in the year on the group's 1965 recording Jazz Dialogue). They next interpret Gershwin's lament "Man Man's Gone Now" (like "Summertime," it was also recorded for the group's 1965 release, Plays George Gershwin's Porgy and Bess) with uncommon delicacy and soul. Lewis' unaccompanied solo near the end of the piece is a prime example of pianistic elegance. An old standby, Lewis' "The Golden Striker"(which the MJQ originally recorded in 1957), is met with immediate recognition by the Newport crowd. One of the more upbeat numbers in the MJQ's repertoire, it blends swing (courtesy of Kay's insistent ride cymbal work against Heath's grooving basslines) with an exacting, chamber-like aesthetic for a prime example of third stream.
They close their July 1st set with Jackson's blues-soaked theme song "Bags' Groove," which made its first appearance on a 1957 Miles Davis Prestige recording of the same name and was subsequently covered by innumerable jazz artists including Sonny Rollins, Kenny Burrell, Ray Brown, Sonny Clark, Dexter Gordon, J.J. Johnson, Red Garland, Arnett Cobb, Lou Donaldson, Jim Hall, Herb Ellis, Larry Coryell, and many others. (The song was named for Jackson's nickname, Bags.)
Vibraphonist Jackson would ultimately leave the group in 1974 to focus on a solo career, but the members of the Modern Jazz Quartet would reorganize in 1981 to play a festival in Japan (documented on Reunion at Budokan 1981 on the Pablo label). They followed up with a string of albums through the '80s and 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. (Milkowski)