Those concerned that drummer Albert (Tootie) Heath, who replaced the late Connie Kay, would make a change in the distinctive sound of the Modern Jazz Quartet can rest easy. Even with its first lineup alteration in 40 years, the MJQ, appearing Saturday at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts, proved its familiar sound continues unchanged.
That sound, noted for its cool nature, is based on tunes from the standard repertoire, including classics written by founding members John Lewis and Milt Jackson, all presented in impeccably clean and tasteful style.
Kay's contribution to the group's distinguished sound was a light touch and unobtrusive percussive ways. But Heath is known for his kick and use of percussive color. When playing with pianist Cedar Walton at the recent Jazz at Drew festival, Heath demonstrated muscle and drive, powering his sound with persistently strong bass drum work.
At Cerritos, Heath's bass pedal was all but ignored in favor of a lighter sound that complemented the frothy blend of Lewis' piano and Jackson's vibes. Reserved, evenly paced cymbal taps accompanied most numbers, with a rattle from the snare popping in here and there. Only during straight-ahead blues numbers, such as "True Blues" and Jackson's "Bags Groove" did Heath power up his style, and then only slightly.
The result was business as usual. Though the tuxedo-clad quartet is often said to resemble classical chamber ensembles, its program was a definitive celebration of jazz, including such tunes as Thelonious Monk's " 'Round Midnight" and Charlie Parker's "Confirmation." Only in the MJQ's arrangement of Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concerto de Aranjuez" and Lewis' secular tribute "For Ellington" did the show take on classical airs.
Jackson dug into themes with earthy abandon as Lewis coaxed more cerebral accompaniment from his keys. Bassist Percy Heath, Albert's brother, was appropriately spare and astute. And despite the predictable nature of its playlist, the foursome delivered exquisite performances, full of collaborative counterpoints and sterling individual improvisations. Even with the loss of Kay, the Modern Jazz Quartet and its timeless sound lives on.