Ironically, The Modern Jazz Quartet's European Concert album finally is released on CD for the first time just before the passing of the third member of the legendary group, reducing the survivors to one: Percy Heath, who also is a member of one of the leading family triumvirates in jazz. Listed as one of the favorite MJQ albums by many of its fans, European Concert initially was released as a double-album package documenting the group's performances throughout Scandinavia in 1960. Finally, Atlantic Records made the album available for re-release, and Label M, with its long list of connections, snatched it up and made sure that European Concert joined its growing list of notable re-releases. Even though Label M specializes in such re-releases, the label hasn't compromised quality and is reveling in the long-unheard or never-before-heard jazz of the 1960's and 1970's.
European Concert proves the label's commitment and shrewd attention to quality and detail. The recording now is as crisp as if it had been recorded digitally, the clarity of John Lewis' notes ringing out to emphasize his deliberate attack on each note and Milt Jackson's vibes creating a enveloping aural glow for which the group was known.
From its explorative and deliberately intellectual beginnings with Ray Brown and Kenny Clarke as the quartet's members left the Dizzy Gillespie Orchestra, The Modern Jazz Quartet had evolved into a world-renowned group commanding the attention of its listeners by the time that European Concert was recorded. After its first European concert in 1957, the MJQ had solidified its sound and its public recognition. It was already acknowledged as a unique voice in jazz and one that brought in new listeners as they paid attention to the group's music, the combination of jazz and blues with a classical sensibility gaining ever more respect wherever they played.
European Concert presents many of the MJQ's best-known tunes, including "Django," "Bags' Groove" and "Bluesology." In addition, jazz standards like "'Round Midnight" and "It Don't Mean A Thing" are included, as is John Lewis' theme written for the movie "Odds Against Tomorrow." Even though the tuxedos and the minimalist approach implied formality, it seems that the MJQ inevitably broke out into a swing, even as the tunes started out with classical allusions or a minor-keyed meditation, like "Django" or "Skating In Central Park." In fact, that was one of the MJQ's joys: the infusion of the blues into the most staid music. The formalism caught the attention of the audience, but the group's inherent personality eventually peeled away the layers of wrappings until its soul shone through.
The respectful restraint of the audience becomes apparent in the applause, not as wild as on some recordings but certainly forceful in its appreciation after each tune. Perhaps that was because of the integrity of the quartet, which played the music it believed in and didn't condescend to the listeners or expect them to hear simplification of the music. "La Ronde" becomes a vehicle to hear Heath play above the altered changes of "Sweet Georgia Brown" while the other three members ever-so-slightly create accents behind him. Lewis' version of "I Remember Clifford" is unlike any others, almost jaunty in its interpretation as he syncopates the notes. Milt Jackson's signature tune, "Bags' Groove," swings as effortlessly as always, the call and response of the beginning leading into complementary improvisational melodies that Jackson and Lewis develop. And Connie Kay's ever-empathetic and light drumming locks in on each tune, as proven on the back-and-forth changes of 6/8 and 4/4 at the beginning of "It Don't Mean A Thing."
As a total unit, the Modern Jazz Quartet's sound remains unmatched in jazz, even though a tribute recording, like the one for Art Blakey, is certainly appropriate and likely. European Concert let us hear in digital format the MJQ's work just as it was gaining its position of prominence among jazz' legendary groups.
Django, Bluesology, I Should Care, La Ronde, I Remember Clifford, Festival Sketch, Vendome, Odds Against Tomorrow, Pyramid (Blues For Junior), It Don't Mean A Thing (If It Ain't Got That Swing), Skating In Central Park, The Cylinder, 'Round Midnight, Bags' Groove, I'll Remember April.