The Modern Jazz Quartet – The Sheriff – Atlantic Records 1414 (1964)/Pure Pleasure Records PPAN SD11414 180-gram stereo vinyl, 30:21 ****1/2:

(John Lewis – piano; Milt Jackson – vibraharp; Percy Heath – double bass; Connie Kay – drums)

The Modern Jazz Quartet was an integral part of the cool jazz movement. With relaxed tempos and formal arrangement (like classical music), this departure from frenetic atonal bebop was pioneered by Miles Davis. Earlier influences on cool jazz included trumpeter Bix Beiderbecke and tenor saxophonist Lester Young. A preference for melodic flows rather than wilder chord manipulations were important characteristics.. Bebop had some of the core elements of cool jazz. This new sound was referred to as softer bebop, but that was oversimplified. Players like Davis, Gill Evans, Lee Konitz, Stan Kenton, Dave Brubeck, Jimmy Giuffre, Paul Desmond, Gerry Mulligan and Zoot Sims were advocates of cool jazz.

One of the bands to emerge in this new wave was the Modern Jazz Quartet. Pianist and co-founder John Lewis integrated classical forms including fugues into the mix. Also coined as third stream jazz, Lewis was influenced by baroque composers (especially J.S. Bach). Modern classicists like Bela Bartok also practiced third stream dynamics. In the case of the Modern Jazz Quartet, the goal was to perform more subtle jazz that still had inherent rhythmic sensibility. Vibraharp master Milt Jackson was a strong counterpoint to Lewis with his sprightly, bop-influenced runs. He was arguably the first musician to play the vibes like a bop musician. Double bassist Percy Heath and drummer Connie Kay were more than equal to the task of pioneering this representation of cool jazz.  Perhaps the greatest achievement of this group was their ability to accompany a variety of jazz icons  as well as orchestras and jazz bands. Their prodigious studio output for Atlantic Records (20 years) is staggering.

Pure Pleasure Records has released a re-mastered 180-gram vinyl update of the 1964 album, The Sheriff. In a succinct (barely 30 minutes) 7 track album, The Modern Jazz Quartet incorporate their unique amalgam of classical jazz into deftly structured performances. What makes the chemistry of this ensemble so rich and deeply connected is the fact that they played together as a unit (with one personnel change) for four decades. Side One gets underway with the title track, a John Lewis original (one of 4). This a free-swinging romp showcasing Milt Jackson percolating vibes with crisp, bluesy runs. Lewis follows with an up-tempo solo. The “minimalist” discipline doesn’t enter her, as the group hits a big finish. There is a lot happening in a mere 2:39. (Note: Leonard Feather’s liner notes are chock full of technical information regarding the arrangements). Next up is a piece Lewis wrote for the 1961 film, A Milanese Story. Unlike the original arrangement (flute, guitar and string quartet), this one is medium swing, but with nods to unusual cool jazz time signatures. Lewis starts off with syncopated notation runs before handing it off to Bags who soars. Lewis intuitively maneuvers around Jackson’s ferocity with nuanced rhythm and phrasing.

Portrait of The Modern Jazz Quartet

The Modern Jazz Quartet

Fans of this group can always expect the unexpected. That’s what they get on “Bachian As Brasileiras”. Written by the legendary Brazilian classical composer Heitor Villa-Lobos, MJQ performed this number with guitarist Laurindo Almeida at the 1963 Monterey Jazz Festival. The “souped up” jazz version is exhilarating. Lewis and Jackson play in a dynamic counterpoint of classical and blues imagery. Double bassist Percy Heath is extraordinary and diverse (pizzicato and arco) and creates an ominous ambience with his bowed play. There is a subtle 3/4 tempo shift and a Latin-infused ending. Jackson brings the jam to a breathless hush with a reverberating single note. “Mean To Me” has always seemed an unlikely jazz vehicle, but became a standard. Lewis’ chords intermingle seamlessly with Jackson’s sizzling lines that almost reinvent the melody). The slowed-down beginning gets a polyrhythmic “hot” break with Heath’s hard-driving bass and Connie Kay’s superb cymbals and snare.

Another Lewis opus, “Natural Affection” (composed for the William Inge play of the same name) is pure bossa nova grooves (reflective of 1964). Lewis’ breezy, at times ethereal solo is melodic. He joins the rhythm section in chord progressions against Jackson’s stylized riffs. A second composition from Natural Affection, “Donnie’s Theme” opens with Heath in a brief counter with Bags. The quartet morphs into a downbeat jam with vibraphone sustain. Lewis and Jackson blend their simultaneous “dueling solos”. Lewis’ runs are very jazzy and Heath briefly solos to the close. Must of the album’s cuts are concise with the exception of “Bachian As Basileiras’ (5:43) and the ultimate finale, Luiz Bonfa’s “Carnival” (6:06). Also known as “Manha De Carnaval”, this widely renowned theme from Black Orpheus has enjoyed several celebrated versions, but this is one is memorable. There is unadulterated MJQ mojo, with all four members playing cohesively. Jackson’s initial solo approximates the core melody before the improvisational transition. Lewis is not as flashy, but injects a winsome lyricism that permeates the song. Bags returns for a second definitive run with a glowing echo at the end.

Pure Pleasure Records has re-mastered The Sheriff to vibrant 180-gram vinyl. The integrity of Tom Dowd’s (record producer and engineer whose decades-long career is beyond legendary) source engineering is captured with integrity. The stereo separation is flawless (with vibes on left and piano on right). The idiosyncratic tonalities of the vibraphone are all there, including the precise crispness and looser vibrato. The studio effects have echo and reverberation, but in measured amounts. The original packaging with the “high fidelity” references to R.I.A.A. high-frequency roll-off and 500 cycle crossover are a glimpse into vintage recording. As indicated previously, Leonard Feather’s incisive liner notes are brilliant, as is the “Modern Art” cover.

Side One: The Sheriff; In A Crowd; Bachian As Brasileiras; Mean To Me
Side Two: Natural Affection; Donnie’s Theme; Carnival

—Robbie Gerson

The Modern Jazz Quartet