Modern Jazz Movement

CALENDAR


It’s A Movement
A cool quintet from Acadiana releases a CD that could take them to the next level.
by Arsenio Orteza, The Times Oct. 2000


If ever Lafayette’s Modern Jazz Movement wanted to test its ability to compete for the attention of a crowd, it couldn’t have chosen a better venue than the one in which it found itself several Thursday nights ago: Bisbano’s. To a crowd consisting mainly of garrulous college students and yuppies-come-lately intent on making themselves heard above the Movement’s modern jazz, the combo performed its familiar blend of standards and originals, often seeming as oblivious to the patrons as the patrons seemed to them.

But anyone who’d eavesdropped closely on the conversations would’ve detected an occasional reference to “Denny” or “Frank,” accompanied by a gesture on the part of the speaker toward the group. And anyone who’d observed the crowd would’ve noticed several patrons paying the kind of rapt attention that serious musicians strive to merit. “A lot of people at our shows are really into what we do,” says Dennis Skerrett, the aforementioned “Denny” and the group’s saxophonist. “They want to hear us go out there and play some crazy stuff that they haven’t heard before. But there are other people who aren’t really into jazz, and they’ll be sitting there going, ‘What are these guys?’

“Actually,” Skerrett continues, “if I think too much about the crowd, I start to tense up and not enjoy myself as much. So I just turn it off, zone out, and do my own thing.”
A jazz musician who does his own thing is nothing new. Five jazz musicians who do their own things and make them work, however, might be. The members of MJM — Skerrett, Frank Kincel (drums), Dion Pierre (bass), Jeff Martin (trumpet), and Shin Ishida (piano) — believe (rightly) that their newly released debut CD, simply titled Modern Jazz Movement, captures what makes them special. They hope that if placed in the right hands it will enable them to get their feet in the doors of such Big Things as the European jazz festival circuit.

The disc should certainly help them to take the Next Step. Comprised entirely of group originals, the disc features an impressive improvisational homage to Thelonious Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” and two enthusiastically swinging pieces — the nine-minute “Theme Two” and the 13-minute “Theme Two” — that in their emotional and musical range not only honor but at times even flatter the group’s musical heroes, many of whom first rose to prominence 50 years ago, during the first “modern jazz” era.

 

MJM’s members can affectionately and knowledgeably recite the names of the musicians who inspired them individually (Charles Mingus and Jaco Pastorius for Pierre, John Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley for Skerrett). But if it was Dexter Gordon’s Live at Carnegie Hall that, as Pierre says, had the single biggest effect on the way the members listen to each other, it’s Miles Davis who seems to be the group’s truest touchstone.

“Miles Davis was the first jazz trumpet player that I heard,” says Martin, whose swamp-pop-musician father Donald Martin was the first non-jazz trumpet player that he heard (Chicago’s Lee Lough-nane the second.). “Kind of Blue is probably my favorite jazz album, but I also love his works with Gil Evans —Sketches of Spain, Porgy and Bess, and Miles Ahead. Those are great too.”

“My favorite period for Miles,” says Pierre, “is the ’60s to the ’70s. I enjoy all the stuff, but he started changing the players — and I think he started playing the tunes better — in the ‘60s.”

Pierre’s appreciation for later-period Davis has also enabled him to help his fellow Modern Jazzsters get hip to such later-period Davis landmarks as Bitches Brew and Miles in the Sky. “I’m still trying to learn how to listen to that stuff,” confesses Martin. “I’m still not at the point where I can really understand what’s going on. But Dion has helped. He’ll tell me, ‘This is what’s going on,’ or ask, ‘What do you think about this?’”

“Dion,” laughs Skerrett, “is our music library. We all check out discs from him.”

Ironically, one group with whom MJM has yet to come to terms is the one with whom for reasons of nomenclature it is most likely to be confused: the Modern Jazz Quartet. Formed in 1950 by John Lewis, Percy Heath, Connie Kay and Milt Jackson, the group was responsible for such landmark jazz recordings as European Concert (1960) and Pyramid (1960). It broke up in 1974 — 23 years before MJM came together.

 

“I don’t think the Modern Jazz Quartet entered our minds when we came up with the name,” says Skerrett. “Maybe that was ignorant on our part.” Now that MJM is making a bid for national attention, he admits, the similarity between the two names is becoming something of an issue. “We’ve given the disc to people that we know who have sent it off to people that they know. And when they get it, they go, ‘Modern Jazz Movement’? That sounds an awful lot like ‘Modern Jazz Quartet.’”

Not that MJM and the MJQ have nothing in common. Their most obvious difference aside (MJM features trumpet and sax, MJQ featured piano and vibes), their goals are/were almost as similar as their names. “What makes jazz unique,” the Quartet’s pianist John Lewis once told Nat Hentoff, “is that it is collective improvisation that swings. ... (T)he bass, drums, and piano should, and can, do more than simply supply a basic pulsation.”

At their best, the MJM’s bass, drums, and piano certainly can and often do. As for “collective improvisation,” there is, according to Skerrett, a reason that the Movement prefers not working with a set list. “So much of what we do onstage is improvised that we don’t know if a song is going to be five minutes or if everybody’s going to get really inspired and stretch it out to 10. We want to be able to take it somewhere else.

“We want to force ourselves to listen,” he adds. “We want to force ourselves to have more of a conversation.”

 

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