Monday Notes

Modern Jazz Quartet, Milano. Between classical music and Jazz

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[Monday Notes No. 31] The Modern Jazz Quartet was one of the longest-running jazz ensembles on the jazz scene. John Lewis was a promoter of the third current and was pursuing a contact between European classical music and jazz.

From the very beginning of the piece when we hear the sound of a triangle, we understand that we are not listening to a conventional jazz piece. The triangle is in fact a percussion instrument used in the classical orchestra, it is certainly not an instrument frequently encountered in jazz.

Milano is an atypical composition, with a theme that is not very incisive and lacks tension, built almost entirely on the C major scale. The harmony is predominantly diatonic, the chords flowing in a simple, linear way.

John Lewis’s compositional approach seems to be guided by a geometric and rational purpose. In the first four measures (0’19”) the melody is built on four descending notes of the scale: A G F E, one per measure.

Milano prima frase

The next phrase (1’11”) is also built on the major scale, and is composed of a long and repeated descent of diatonic second intervals: D-E, C-D, B-C, A-B, etc.

Milano is therefore a neutral, entirely malleable piece, in which carefully written melodic lines prevail, a bit like in classical compositions. It has very little of a typical jazz piece.

During the theme played by the vibraphone, the rest of the band continuously plays counterpoint phrases (0’46”, 1’24”, 1’36”). At the end of the exposition we hear Milt Jackson’s solo (2’02”) which gives the band a change of dynamics and intensity, bringing it closer to more jazzy sounds.

The reprise of the theme (3’33”) is characterised by a change of key (D♭ Major) and the return of the triangle. The coda (3’37”) surprises us with a series of modulations that bring the theme back to its starting key (C Major).

With his composition Milano, John Lewis achieves a synthesis of project and freedom, written and improvised parts. The Modern Jazz Quartet is an absolutely original and recognizable ensemble, capable of breaking free from the clichés of the jazz repertoire without losing a robust sense of swing.

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