Wednesday, March 29, 2017

The Modern Jazz Quartet - "No Sun In Venice" [From the Archives]

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

It didn’t last very long, but it was fun while it did.

Movies and TV series with Jazz scores written and performed by prominent composers, arrangers and Jazz combos were all the rage for a while.

Johnny Mandel’s score to the movie I Want to Live, Miles Davis’ themes and improvised sketches for  Ascenseur Pour L'Echafaud (Lift To The Scaffold, and one that has always been among my favorites, pianist John Lewis’ original film score to No Sun in Venice which he performs with his colleagues on The Modern Jazz Quartet No Sun in Venice LP/CD [Atlantic 1284-2].

A recent listening of this recording prompted me to do a bit of research about the group and how John Lewis came to write and record the film score in 1957.

I must admit that the cover painting by J.M.W. Turner [1775-1851], one of a series of famous Venetian oils he created about la serenissima, may have had a great influence on my purchase of this recording as I had never heard the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet [MJQ], nor had I seen the movie.

Thus began my enamorment with one of the most unique groups in the history of Jazz.

Gary Giddins provided this background on the formation of the MJQ in these excerpts from his masterful Visions of Jazz: The First Century:

Modern Jazz Quartet [The First  Forty Years]

“‘In creating, the only hard thing is to begin,’ wrote James Russell Lowell [Poet, Harvard Professor, Editor of The Atlantic Monthly]. For the Modern Jazz Quartet, the world's most venerable chamber group in or out of jazz, the beginning was a three-year trial. Few people in the early '50s would have entertained the idea that a small jazz band could flourish over four decades, bridging generations and styles. Big bands had proved durable in part because, like symphony orchestras, they could withstand changes in personnel, and because they counted on dancers to sustain their appeal. No jazz chamber group had ever lasted more than a few seasons.

When the MJQ first convened, American music was in one of its many transitional phases. The public's taste changed with frightening alacrity. A decade earlier, the country was jitterbugging to swing. After the war, bop ruled jazz, while big bands struggled for survival and pop songs grew increasingly bland. In 1952, there was talk of a cool school in jazz, while younger listeners were drawn to rhythm and blues. A couple of years down the road, there would be hard bop, soul, and rock and roll. Then the deluge: third stream, free jazz, neo-romanticism, acid rock, new music, fusion, neoclassicism, disco, original instruments, hip hop, grunge, and more.

Yet through it all, the Modern Jazz Quartet persisted and prospered. We do well to remember that the fortieth anniversary of the MJQ in 1992 was only the seventy-fifth anniversary of jazz on records, if we honor as genesis the sensationally successful 1917 Victor release of the Original Dixieland Jazz Band's "Livery Stable Blues” b/w "Dixie Jazz Band One-Step.” Thirty-five years later, on December 22, 1952, John Lewis, Milt Jackson, Percy Heath, and Kenny Clarke met at a Manhattan recording studio leased by Prestige Records and recorded two standards ("All the Things You Are" and "Rose of the Rio Grande") and two Lewis originals with exotic names: "La Ronde," which had its origins in a piece recorded by the Dizzy Gillespie orchestra, and "Vendome," which prefigured the merging of jazz and fugal counterpoint that became an abiding trademark of the MJQ. The records were widely noted, but less widely embraced. With Lewis spending most of his time working toward a master's degree at the Manhattan School of Music, the first session was — notwithstanding a gig in an obscure Greenwich Village bistro called the Chantilly — an isolated foray.

The world was a different place that chilly day. At the very moment the quartet cut those records, President-elect Eisenhower was at the Commodore Hotel a few blocks away, meeting with a group of Negro clergymen to whom he expressed "amazement" that discrimination was widely practiced; he promised to appoint a commission to study the matter, adding that he was determined to abide by the law even if every Negro in America voted against him. Also in the news: the Soviets accused the U.S. of murdering eighty-two North Korean and Chinese POWs; allied fighter-bombers strafed Korean supply depots; more than seven hundred protesters staged a rally for the Rosenbergs at Sing Sing; Sugar Ray Robinson announced his retirement from the ring. The New York Times''s music pages noted a concert by George Szell and Guiomar Novaes and two debuts by Stravinsky, but, as was customary, expended not a word on jazz or popular music, and devoted twice the space to radio listings as to television.

In jazz, 1952 is best remembered for the formation of the MJQ, but it was also the year Count Basie (a profound influence on Lewis) returned to big band music after leading an octet for two years; Gerry Mulligan started his pathbreaking quartet; and Eddie Sauter fused with Bill Finegan. Norman Granz took Jazz at the Philharmonic to Europe, where Dizzy Gillespie's sextet was also on tour. Fletcher Henderson died, and trombonist George Lewis was born. Clifford Brown went on the road with an r & b band, while John Coltrane played section tenor for Earl Bostic and Cecil Taylor matriculated at the New England Conservatory. Louis Armstrong had two hit records, "Kiss of Fire" and a remake of "Sleepy Time Down South"; George Shearing introduced his "Lullaby of Birdland"; Thelonious Monk recorded with a trio for the first time in five years. Charlie Parker didn't record in a studio, but he kept busy, performing "Hot House" with Gillespie on TV, leading his strings at the Rockland Palace and Carnegie Hall, and working Birdland with four musicians who, one month later, would make their recorded debut as the Modern Jazz Quartet.”

[Connie Kay replaced Clarke in 1954 and remained in the drum chair with the MJQ until his death in 1994.]

In reviewing the MJQ’s recordings from 1955-onward that have been released as CD’s on Prestige, Atlantic and Pablo Records, some of the qualities that make the Modern Jazz Quartet’s music unique are described in Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.:

“Frequently dismissed - as unexciting, pretentious, bland, Europeanized, pat - the MJQ remained hugely popular for much of the last 30 years, filling halls and consistently outselling most other jazz acts. The enigma lies in that epithet 'Modern' for, inasmuch as the MJQ shifted more product than anyone else, they were also radicals (or maybe that American hybrid, radical-conservatives) who have done more than most barnstorming revolutionaries to change the nature and form of jazz performance, to free it from its changes-based theme-and-solos cliches. Leader/composer John Lewis has a firm grounding in European classical music, particularly the Baroque, and was a leading light in both Third Stream music and the Birth Of The Cool sessions with Gerry Mulligan and Miles Davis. From the outset he attempted to infuse jazz performance with a consciousness of form, using elements of through-composition, counterpoint, melodic variation and, above all, fugue to multiply the trajectories of improvisation. And just as people still, even now, like stories with a beginning, middle and end, people have liked the well-made quality of MJQ performances which, on their night, don't lack for old-fashioned excitement.

The fact that they had been Dizzy's rhythm section led people to question the group's viability as an independent performing unit. The early recordings more than resolve that doubt. Lewis has never been an exciting performer (in contrast to Jackson, who is one of the great soloists in jazz), but his brilliant grasp of structure is evident from the beginning. Of the classic MJQ pieces -'One Bass Hit', 'The Golden Striker', 'Bags' Groove' - none characterizes the group more completely than Lewis's 'Django', first recorded in the session of December 1954.

The Prestige [The Artistry of the Modern Jazz Quartet]is a useful CD history of the early days of the band, but it's probably better to hear the constituent sessions in their entirety. Some of the material on the original two-disc vinyl format has been removed to make way for a Sonny Rollins/MJQ set ('No Moe', 'The Stopper', 'In A Sentimental Mood', 'Almost Like Being In Love'), which is a pity, for this material was long available elsewhere.

Connie Kay slipped into the band without a ripple; sadly, his ill-health and death were the only circumstances in the next 40 years of activity necessitating a personnel change. His cooler approach, less overwhelming than Clarke's could be, was ideal, and he sounds right from the word 'go'. His debut was on the fine Concorde, which sees Lewis trying to blend jazz improvisation with European counterpoint. It combines some superb fugal writing with a swing that would have sounded brighter if recording quality had been better. Though the integration is by no means always complete, it's more appealing in its very roughness than the slick Bach-chat that turns up on some of the Atlantics.

The label didn't quite know what to do with the MJQ, but the Erteguns [Ahmet and Neshui, brothers who emigrated to the USA from Turkey] were always alert to the demographics and, to be fair, they knew good music when they heard it. One of the problems the group had in this, arguably their most consistent phase creatively, was that everything appeared to need conceptual packaging, even when the music suggested no such thing. Chance associations, like the celebrated version of Ornette's 'Lonely Woman', were doubtless encouraged by the fact that they shared a label, and this was all to the good; there are, though, signs that in later years, as rock began to swallow up a bigger and bigger market share, the group began to suffer from the inappropriate packaging. Though home-grown compositions reappear throughout the band's history (there's a particularly good 'Django' on Pyramid), there are also constant references to standard repertoire as well and some of these are among the group's greatest achievements.

By the same inverted snobbery that demands standards rather than 'pretentious classical rubbish', it's long been a useful cop-out to profess admiration only for those MJQ albums featuring right-on guests. The earlier Silver collaboration isn't as well known as a justly famous encounter with Sonny Rollins at Music Inn, reprising their encounters of 1951, 1952 and 1953, which were really the saxophonist's gigs. Restored in a fresh mastering, it's clear how much Sonny was an interloper on an already skilled, tight unit. Most of the record is by the MJQ alone, including one of their delicious standard medleys and a brilliant reading of Lewis's 'Midsommer'. The two (live) tracks which Rollins appears on aren't entirely satisfactory, since he cannot make much impression on 'Bags' Groove', already a Jackson staple, and sounds merely discursive on 'A Night In Tunisia'. Overall, this set very much belongs to the MJQ.

Lewis's first exploration of characters from the commedia dell’arte came in Fontessa, an appropriately chill and stately record that can seem a little enigmatic, even off-putting. He develops these interests considerably in the simply titled Comedy, which largely consists of dulcet character-sketches with unexpected twists and quietly violent dissonances. The themes of commedia are remarkably appropriate to a group who have always presented themselves in sharply etched silhouette, playing a music that is deceptively smooth and untroubled but which harbours considerable jazz feeling and, as on both Fontessa and Comedy, considerable disruption to conventional harmonic progression.

Given Lewis's interests and accomplishments as an orchestrator, there have been surprisingly few jazz-group-with-orchestra experiments. More typical, perhaps, than the 1987 Three Windows is what Lewis does on Lonely Woman. One of the very finest of the group's albums, this opens with a breathtaking arrangement of Ornette Coleman's haunting dirge and then proceeds with small-group performances of three works - 'Animal Dance', 'Lamb, Leopard' and 'Fugato' - which were originally conceived for orchestral performance. Remarkably, Lewis's small-group arrangements still manage to give an impression of symphonic voicings.

Kay's ill-health finally overcame him in December 1994 and the following February, the MJQ issued in his memory a concert from 1960, recorded in what was then Yugoslavia, a relatively innocuous destination on the international tour. Whatever its historical resonance, it inspired (as John Lewis discovered when he auditioned these old tapes) one of the truly great MJQ performances, certainly one of the very best available to us on disc. It knocks into a cocked hat even the new edition of the so-called Last Concert. Jackson's playing is almost transcendentally wonderful on 'Bags' Groove' and 'I Remember Clifford', and the conception of Lewis's opening commedia sequence could hardly be clearer or more satisfying. Dedicated To Connie is a very special record and has always been our favourite of the bunch, ….”

Gary Kramer provides this explanation of the turn-of-events that brought about the occasion of John Lewis’ film score for No Sun in Venice in his insert notes to The Modern Jazz Quartet No Sun in Venice LP/CD [Atlantic 1284-2].

“In December 1956 the globe-trotting Modern Jazz Quartet found itself in Paris. Among the enthusiastic Parisians who flocked to St. Germain-des-Pres to hear the group was Raoul Levy, producer of the film And God Created Woman and other international cinema hits. Levy did not come over to the Left Bank merely to spend a pleasant evening digging jazz sounds, but to make John Lewis a business proposition. He was about to produce Sait-On Jamais, a film to star Francoise Arnoul, and wanted to know whether John would be free to write the background music and whether it would be possible to use The Modern Jazz Quartet to make the soundtrack.

John consented to write the score and worked on it assiduously during his scanty leisure hours while he and the Quartet were touring the United States in the first months of 1957. Despite the fact that some of the music was written in Los Angeles, some in Chicago, some of it in New York, the score has structural unity and a high degree of internal organization. It was John Lewis' first film score and represented a special challenge. As he put it, "Jazz is often thought to be limited in expression. It is used for 'incidental music' or when a situation in a drama or film calls for jazz, but rarely in a more universal way apart from an explicit jazz context. Here it has to be able to run the whole gamut of emotions and carry the story from beginning to end."”

Sait-On Jamais (a literal translation of which is One Never Knows) was released in the United States in 1957 as No Sun In Venice by Kinglsey International Pictures.

As I write this feature almost fifty years later, I still have not seen the movie. I noticed that it is now available on DVD, but at $60 bucks, I think I’ll pass.

However, in the intervening half century, I have listened to John Lewis’s score to the film many times and I highly recommend it to you.

The following video contains lots of the renown artist JMW Turner's iconic images of Venice as set to the Cortege track from John Lewis score to One Never Knows.

Connie Kay's use of triangles, finger cymbals, tambourines, open high hats and mallets on cymbals to create gong-like effects almost adds a forbidden sense of joy to this dirge.

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