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Celtic, classic, folk, and jazz – the Music @ St. Alban's concert series at the acoustically splendid Episcopal church in Davidson has embraced a wide variety of music over the years. So, it was interesting to observe their welcoming approach to resuming live performances after an abbreviated season of online events. For their first concert of 2021-22, the Noel Freidline Quartet's tribute to the Modern Jazz Quartet, St. Alban's requested that all audience members be fully vaccinated and wear masks throughout the performance. No vaccination cards were checked at the entrance, while the series website invited anyone who wasn't vaccinated to enjoy the live-stream of the concert – a trusting, responsible, and inclusive approach.
Any exploration of the Modern Jazz Quartet must begin with the special MJQ instrumentation and sound. Formed in 1952, MJQ always centered around its pianist-composer-arranger John Lewis and vibraphonist Milt Jackson, whose interplay and musical rapport were legendary. By 1955, the formula and sound congealed, as percussionist Connie Kay and bassist Percy Heath replaced their flashier predecessors, Kenny Clarke and Ray Brown. The Freidline combo featured Jon Metzger playing the vibraphone, Rick Dior on drums, Zack Page on bass, and the leader at the keyboard. Clearly, it was Freidline and Metzger who cooked up the program between them, since Dior replaced the drummer originally announced on our events calendar. As for Page, Freidline exposed his unfamiliarity with the bassist when he presumed that none of the other musicians onstage were familiar with "Rose Room": Page not only knew the tune, he had played it with his twin brother, guitarist Andy Page, in a "Gypsy Jazz" tribute to Django Reinhardt less than two years ago at Charlotte's Stage Door Theater.
Freidline and Metzger were savvier in their sampling of the MJQ legacy, which stretched over 40 years and 50 recordings. They played compositions that are musts for anyone coming to this music for the first time, including Lewis's classically sophisticated "Django" and "Vendôme," offset by Jackson's funkier "Bluesology" and "Bags' Groove." There were also discriminating choices like "Concorde," perhaps Lewis's most challenging composition, and standards such as "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," "All the Things You Are," and "Summertime," that crystallized the pianist's arranging genius. The rest of the selections were less expected, almost equally fresh for longtime MJQ fans as they were for neophytes, including "Afternoon in Paris," "Autumn in New York," "Delauney's Dilemma," and "Blues in C Minor."
One of the characteristics that made MJQ so unique was their pioneering conservatism. They preferred outdoor festivals and concert halls to seedy clubs, dressed up for their performances in matching tuxedos like orchestra musicians, and insisted on being listened to rather than being taken for granted as dance or background music. For a long while, these practices, not terribly outré nowadays, were viewed as outlandish and pretentious. Less notorious, but no less innovative, was their practice of offering spoken intros to each of their pieces as they performed. Freidline, without self-consciously noting MJQ's influence, adopted this practice himself.
Beginning with "Afternoon in Paris," probably Lewis's earliest jazz standard, the Freidline Quartet made it evident that there would be some give-and-take in terms of their replication of the MJQ sound and style. If you had ever heard the quartet live – or spent hours and hours of quality time with their most revered albums – the sound of Metzger playing his Musser vibraphone repeatedly seemed to bring the playing of Milt "Bags" Jackson back to life. Metzger's tremolo may not have been as slow, and his sustains may not have been quite as long or rich, but the Jackson swing and flow kept on coming – chiming – wave after luscious wave. As a leader, Freidline doled out far more spotlight to his supporting players than Lewis, trading four-bar improvisations with Dior toward the end of the opening piece and giving Page a solo on the ensuing "Bluesology," where Metzger sounded even more like Jackson on the legendary vibes master's famed composition. Freidline, on the other hand, was nowhere near as trim or spare in his soloing as Lewis, sounding more like Dave Brubeck at the keyboard, full chords showering down at times from both hands rather than single note phrases. It wasn't until we reached "Summertime," whose silences Freidline extolled in his charming intro, that the pianist came near to echoing Lewis's single-note soloing style, which always contrasted so beautifully with Jackson's deluges.
Lewis was not at all discarded, however, for Freidline delighted in playing the pianist's arrangements, and when it came to "Concorde" and "Vendôme," he presented Lewis's own compositions as written. Perhaps the most eloquent moment in Freidline's intro to "Concorde" was when he held out its nine pages of sheet music and allowed it to unfold down to the floor. We heard the Bach-like layering that opens "Concorde," the contrapuntal prelude that gives way to "Softly as in a Morning Sunrise," and the solemn chiming that leads us in and out of George Gershwin's "Summertime." The most outrageous "heresy" of the concert, when Dior brandished sticks and played a full-out solo on "La Ronde," wasn't a heresy at all, for the group wasn't referencing the hallowed European Concert version of 1960, featuring bassist Heath. They were hearkening back instead to the first MJQ recording, when Kenny Clarke was behind the drum kit wailing away in "La Ronde" from beginning to end – and soloing – on December 22, 1952.
The tribute within the tribute, Lewis' "Django," was the highlight of the concert for me, and I'm sure I wasn't the only audience member who was moved by the composer's hushed and sacred framing of the solos. Metzger was perfection in handling the transition between the bittersweet melody and the accelerated improvisations lavished upon it, turning the lament into a quiet celebration and making the lament all the more poignant as the Romani guitarist's signature swing was wistfully evoked. Page had his best moments of the afternoon as he eloquently soloed, and Freidline was no less perfect than Metzger in his soloing and decelerating back to the mournful melody. Luckily, every note of this fine concert is preserved on YouTube.