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Nat Steele

Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet


by Ian Mann

January 11, 2018


There’s no denying the charm of this album. All four musicians deliver superlative performances and their individual and collective love of their chosen material is obvious.

Nat Steele

“Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet”

(Trio Records TR598)

Released in September 2017 this album from self-taught vibraphonist Nat Steele and his quartet has already attracted a compelling amount of critical acclaim. The recording puts a contemporary slant on the music of the Modern Jazz Quartet – most commonly known as the MJQ – the innovative and long running group founded in the 1950s by pianist John Lewis, vibraphonist Milt Jackson, bassist Percy Heath and drummer Kenny Clarke, the latter soon replaced by Connie Kay to create the definitive MJQ line up.

Steele’s quartet features the leader on vibes alongside rising star pianist Gabriel Latchin, Italian born bass player Dario Di Lecce and the vastly experienced drummer Steve Brown.

The original MJQ helped to pioneer the fusion of jazz with classical musical forms, the latter primarily introduced to the group by its pianist and musical director John Lewis. “The MJQ is famous for bringing jazz out of the clubs and into the concert halls”, as Steele’s liner notes put it.

Steele’s MJQ inspired group (Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet has also been adopted as a band name) arose from the ashes of MJQ Celebration, formed in 2009 and led by the late British pianist and composer Michael Garrick. Following Garrick’s death in 2011 bassist Matt Ridley took over the leadership role before relinquishing the reins to Steele in 2016. Since Garrick founded MJQ Celebration in 2009 there have been many personnel changes with drummer Brown the only constant.

As presently constituted the Nat Steele Quartet played their first gig in 2016 and quickly established a musical rapport, staggering into the studio to record on the day after a Late, Late Show at Ronnie Scott’s. Still buzzing and in the groove the quartet remained in fine form and many of the tracks on the album are ‘first takes’.

Inspired by Milt Jackson and Cal Tjader Steele is a two mallet player and has been described by influential drummer Clark Tracey as “one of the best vibes players this country has ever produced”.
Steele has worked as a sideman with saxophonists Alex Garnett, Allison Neale and Pete Long, clarinettist Julian Bliss and guitarist Jim Mullen among others. He also co-ordinates the annual BopFest Jazz Festival at The Elgin pub in Ladbroke Grove now part of the wider EFG London Jazz Festival. I remember meeting him there (in his promoter’s role) at a lunchtime performance by a quintet co-led by Garnett and trumpeter Steve Fishwick in November 2016, shortly after this album was recorded.

The original MJQ recorded prolifically during its forty three year history and Steele readily admits that choosing a programme for this album presented quite a challenge. After much discussion they decided to focus primarily on the earlier, bebop orientated material, being primarily bebop players themselves. The energy and vivacity that they bring to their performances certainly justifies that decision.

Steele’s vibes introduce a sparkling arrangement of Dizzy Gillespie’s “Woody ‘N’ You” and his two mallets fly in an opening solo in a Latin tinged arrangement that speaks of the influence of both Jackson and Tjader. He’s followed by the excellent Latchin at the piano, a musician who also attracted considerable critical acclaim in 2017 for the release of his own bebop flavoured début album “Introducing Gabriel Latchin Trio”. My review of this album, which also featured bassist Tom Farmer and drummer Josh Morrison can be read here;
Meanwhile Di Lecce and Brown imbue the music with an easy, effortless swing and the latter gets to enjoy a series of lively drum breaks as he trades phrases with Steele and Latchin.

John Lewis himself wrote “The Golden Striker” which successfully combines classical flourishes with an underlying bluesiness. Steele and his colleagues strike just the right balance between swing and prettiness with Di Lecce’s bass prominent in the arrangement, first melodic, then propulsive. Again Steele’s mallets skip lightly over the bars as he takes the first solo followed by Latchin at the piano as Brown’s neat drumming once more drives the tune unobtrusively along.

The MJQ’s classical leanings aren’t forgotten and the next piece is the nine minute “La Ronde Suite”, composed by Lewis and Dizzy Gillespie and arranged by Lewis. It’s still busy and swinging with a tricky, boppish theme featuring some excellent interplay between Steele and Lachin before the music sub divides into individual ‘movements’ featuring each instrumentalist in turn. Latchin maintains the initial energy at the piano before a more reflective passage showcasing the melodic, highly dexterous bass playing of Di Lecce.  The pace increases again with Steele’s nimble vibes solo. Steele and Brown then exchange ideas on the lively, colourful closing passage “Drums”, which includes a snippet of Gillespie’s “Salt Peanuts”.

Lewis’ arrangement of Vernon Duke’s “Autumn in New York” acts as the vehicle for the Steele quartet to demonstrate the gentler side of their playing on a delightfully lyrical ballad performance that makes effective use of space. Delicately flowing solos come from Steele at the vibes and Lachin at the piano with understated bass and softly brushed drums gently nudging the music forwards.

Lewis’ arrangement of Sigmund Romberg’s “Softly As In A Morning Sunrise” adds a dash of J.S. Bach to the original and elicits a gently swinging performance from the Steele quartet with Di Lecce taking the first solo at the bass, again combining melodicism and dexterity with a deep, swinging resonance. Lachin follows with an expansive piano solo and he’s followed by the fluent Steele at the vibes as the rhythm section subtly accelerate the pace of the tune.

A vivacious “I’ll Remember April” embodies the bebop inspired spirit of the Steele quartet with sparkling solos from Steele and Latchin enlivened by Di Lecce’s propulsive bass walk and Brown’s crisply brushed drums, the latter enjoying a lengthy break towards the latter stages of the piece.

Lewis’ “Django” represents an affectionate homage to Monsieur Reinhardt, opening with a gentle passage led by Steele’s translucent vibes before striking out into gently swinging bop infused territory. Steele takes the first solo, his vibes percolating pleasingly before he hands over to Latchin for an expansive solo that adds classical flourishes to the bebop flavours. Di Lecce and Brown offer typically succinct, but swinging, support.

Steele delivers Milt Jackson’s most famous composition, the much covered “Bag’s Groove”, with considerable élan and his solo is again followed by the consistently impressive Latchin. Meanwhile Di Lecce and Brown keep things simple, but swinging.

The album concludes with Lewis’ arrangement of Cole Porter’s “All Of You” with the Steele quartet delivering a beautiful ballad performance led by the luminous sound of the leader’s vibes and with Brown delivering a wonderfully sensitive performance with the brushes.

I’m usually a little wary of albums billed as “A Portrait of” or “A Tribute to” and generally feel that there are rather too many of this type of recording around as jazz gets increasingly bogged down by its own history – rock is going much the same way.

However that said there’s no denying the charm of this album. All four musicians deliver superlative performances and their individual and collective love of their chosen material is obvious.

The album also benefits from modern recording technology. “Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet” appears on bassist Andrew Cleyndert’s Trio record label and Cleyndert himself has engineered the album, mixing it with a musician’s ear. Steele receives the production credit and the sound is well balanced, clear and pristine. The clarity of the mix allows these compositions to breathe and brings out the true beauty of the writing of John Lewis and others. It also emphasises the high quality of the playing and in many respects this recording actually sounds better than the original MJQ albums which suffered from the quality of the recording technology of the time, Jackson’s vibes in particular could sound rather clanky.

Bearing all this in mind “Portrait of the Modern Jazz Quartet” is a very enjoyable and worthwhile release and one suspects that live performances by the Nat Steele Quartet will also prove to be exciting and rewarding affairs.

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