A Brief but Remarkable Match for the MJQ

Don Heckman writes frequently about jazz for The Times

It was a rare occasion when the Modern Jazz Quartet invited another artist to participate in its carefully crafted instrumental sound. The group's integral, even intuitive, cohesiveness didn't seem to allow room for another instrument or, in fact, another musical perspective.

Unexpectedly, however, in 1963 the MJQ got together with Brazilian guitarist Laurindo Almeida for a project at the Monterey Jazz Festival and followed that engagement with a four-month tour in early 1964. The combination turned out to be remarkably compatible. The virtuosic Almeida fit perfectly into the quartet's classically oriented pieces, and he brought an understanding of the subtleties of Brazilian rhythms to the partnership that urged the MJQ into wider areas of expression.

"Collaboration" (* * * 1/2, Label M Classics) was recorded shortly after the tour concluded, with Almeida fitting into the MJQ's music--including such familiar items as John Lewis' "Silver," "Trieste" and "Valeria"--in easygoing fashion. Largely playing a supportive role in the Lewis pieces, offering harmonic subtexts and making occasional contrapuntal contributions (especially in Lewis' transcription of the Bach Fugue in A minor), Almeida emerges more noticeably in a pair of Brazilian classics, Antonio Carlos Jobim's "One Note Samba" and Djalma Ferreira's "Foi A Saudade." On the closing track, the Adagio from Joaquin Rodrigo's "Concierto de Aranjuez"--known to most jazz fans via the Miles Davis-Gil Evans "Sketches of Spain"--his guitar is front and center.

Almeida's solo introduction to "One Note Samba" is marvelous, removing the piece from its bossa nova roots for a few moments to position it as a classical guitar piece before moving into an urgent, Joao Gilberto sort of rhythmic drive. Vibist Milt Jackson dashes in with typical jazz fervor, his line soaring above Almeida's accompaniment, immediately followed by Lewis' lean, melodic set of variations. And the lovely, sensual interplay that takes place in the Rodrigo piece--which is beautifully adapted by Lewis in a fashion that retains the guitar line from the original composition, surrounding it with the unique sound of the quartet--leaves one with the now-impossible wish that this remarkably simpatico group had somehow managed to find other opportunities to explore this musical compatibility.

The guitar has become a considerably more visible instrument since Almeida's work of the early '60s, of course, its popularity paralleling the dominance of rock 'n' roll-related musics. Beyond its appeal to the pop market, however, it also has continued to reveal its versatility in virtually every musical genre. It's not hard to find, among the steady flow of new releases, distinctive examples of its far-reaching capabilities.

* * * 1/2 Ralph Towner, "Anthem," ECM. Towner is best known as the guitarist (and sometimes keyboardist) with the group Oregon. But his solo recordings (earlier highlights include "Ana" and "Solo Concert") are the product of a probing musical mind and an assured mastery of the acoustic guitar. Most of the tracks here are original, rendered in a fashion that seamlessly eliminates any obvious connections between composed and improvised passages. But he also performs with dark insight on Charles Mingus' tribute to Lester Young, "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat," and bassist Scott LaFaro's "Gloria's Step," a piece that unveils a close harmonic linkage with legendary pianist Bill Evans (an acknowledged influence on Towner and an early music associate of LaFaro). Some might call this music moody, intellectual and cerebral. Repeated listening, however, will produce far more fruitful emotional reactions.

* * * Freddie Green, "Mr. Rhythm," Koch Jazz. This was a guitarist whose contributions to jazz probably traced to his being somewhat inconspicuous. If that sounds contradictory, bear in mind that he is best known for his playing in the Count Basie rhythm section. The ultimate rhythm guitarist, he was, according to Basie, "a tie-up man, not only because he's very steady, but because he actually holds the band together."

Green did so in a fashion that was almost invisible, an irresistible presence in the rhythm--as vital to the sound and substance of the Basie orchestra as a John Williams film score is to the drama of a Steven Spielberg movie.

Given his elusive image, it's not surprising that Green rarely led his own ensembles, even on recording. And when he did, as in this appropriately titled outing, a 1956 recording originally issued on RCA and now available as a CD, the results were often strikingly reminiscent of Basie's music. The similarities are enhanced by the presence of Basie-ites Joe Newman on trumpet, Henry Coker on trombone and Basie alter ego pianist Nat Pierce, along with the always hard-driving tenor saxophonist Al Cohn (who also makes a rare appearance on clarinet, delivering some engagingly soulful choruses).

Most of the tunes are brightly spirited Green originals, arranged by Cohn or Manny Albam for a seven-piece ensemble, with the leader's inexhaustibly rhythmic strumming leading the way. Predictably, Green doesn't solo but, as he often said before he passed away in 1987 at the age of 75, "playing rhythm is the same as playing solos as far as I'm concerned." Nobody ever did it better.

* * * George Benson. "The George Benson Cookbook," Columbia Legacy. * * 1/2 "It's Uptown With the George Benson Quartet," Columbia Legacy. I first became seriously aware of George Benson in the mid-'60s, when producer John Hammond, excited and enthusiastic about his latest discovery, insisted I hear some tracks from the first Benson recording--still in progress--for Columbia. I had heard him a few months earlier on a recording with organist Jack McDuff, but that didn't prepare me for the sort of breakout playing he was achieving on his first Columbia dates.

Although I found Benson's guitar work on the "Uptown" album first-rate, it also contained a few too many pop elements (a forecast of things to come) for my taste. But the "Cookbook" album was stunning, the work of a young talent with the skill to invest his awareness of tradition with driving, contemporary sounds. Ironically, the two albums, now reissued on Columbia Legacy, afford an early view of the stylistic ambivalence that would characterize Benson's work from then until the present.

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