Milt Jackson is typical of many jazz musicians now in their 40s and 50s who are coasting on the skills and reputations they acquired 20 years ago. These performers are still superlative craftsmen, but they lack the freshness or fire essential to the best jazz. Jackson's performance at Blues Alley Tuesday night was as emotionally bloodless as it was technically flawless.
Jackson hammered fast sprays of notes from his vibraharp just as he once did for the Modern Jazz Quartet. He went up and down the keyboard through one variation after another in a fluid but routine manner, as if he had done it a thousand times before. Of course, he had.
The evening's most stimulating moments occurred when Jackson's young pianist from Detroit, Johnny O'Neal, played two solo pieces before the quartet's set and three more afterwards. All five members were showcases for O'Neal's virtuoso skills, which included lightning Art Tatum runs, economical Count Basie phrases and thick clusters of Horace Silver chords. O'Neal's playing was a bit sentimental, but at least it was filled with a passion of some description.
Jackson, O'Neal, drummer Vinny Johnson and the excellent Washington bassist Steve Novosel will be at Blues Alley through Sunday.