Nat Steele Quartet @ The Victory Club.

In the 1950s, when bebop was still all the rage, a supercool quartet decided to take jazz in another direction – though not one that was universally welcomed at the time. Nevertheless, the Modern Jazz Quartet of Milt Jackson, John Lewis, Percy Heath and Connie Kay forged ahead to develop a sound and style all of their own, drawing appreciative new listeners to jazz in the process.

With pianist Gabriel Latchin, bassist Dario Di Lecce and drummer Matt Home, vibraphonist Nat Steele pays homage to the mastery and innovation of MJQ, and reminds us of a pivotal time in the history of jazz in the twentieth century.

Steele and co. opened with Milt Jackson’s ‘Bluesology’, an archetypal MJQ tune, showcasing the intricate interplay of all four instrumentalists, as well as providing a platform for concentrated solos. The MJQ ethos came to be shaped by classical chamber music as much as jazz, and that was evident throughout many of the compositions heard tonight. But while that may have proved too constraining for some, for the MJQ – and clearly for Nat Steele too – it liberates and enlivens.
However, the earnest hard bop of Dizzy Gillespie’s ‘ Woody and You’ with which the quartet followed up, counteracted any impressions that the band were given to over-thinking: the four were clearly as comfortable in stretching out as they were in nailing the often complex arrangements.
Two cases in point being John Lewis’ quasi-baroque ‘The Golden Striker’ from the film ‘No Sun in Venice’ with its walking bass intro accompanied by antique finger cymbals, and a version of ‘All the Things You Are’ full of snap, crackle and pop. Steele’s energetic vibes solo and Di Lecce’s elegant bass solo distinguished this from so many run-of-the-mill interpretations.

Then Vernon Duke’s sensual ballad ‘Autumn in New York’ preceded arguably the MJQ’s most ambitious piece, the ‘La Ronde Suite’. Nat Steele described it as John Lewis’ “four-part experiment in classical form, featuring a different instrumentalist in each part” – i.e I piano, II bass, III vibes, IV drums. It is something of a tour de force, and featured some exceptionally tight ensemble playing.

Set two opened with ‘Django’, a swinging blues bookended by tinkling triangle, followed by ‘Delauney’s Dilemma’, a witty retort by the MJQ to a certain French jazz critic. Then the band launched into ‘In the Still of the Night’, taken at full-throttle, eliciting a dazzling vibes solo from Steele. Another canny uptempo arrangement of ‘Softly As a Morning Sunrise’ saw Dario Di Lecce step up with a delightfully deft bass solo.

The quartet’s homeward stretch began with John Lewis’ ‘Milano’, a romp through Sonny Rollins’ collaboration with the MJQ, ‘No Moe’, an easygoing unannounced ballad, and the no-nonsense ‘Bag’s Groove’. All in all, a fine selection of tunes, and a timely reminder of the importance of the MJQ in the history of modern jazz.

©Julia Price 2019