Modern Jazz Quartet 5 CD box set (Warners) 4/5

The Modern Jazz Quartet are something of an institution apart in the world of jazz and over several decades have constantly crossed boundaries between jazz and other music forms. This welcome addition groups together five albums from 1960 and the early 1960s and is a fine document of the MJQ at the height of their powers. Of all their studio albums, ‘Pyramid’ towers above all the rest and rightly so. It contains some of their most endearing and lasting interpretations that have become staples of their concert performances with the original title track and the wonderful takes on the standards ‘It don’t mean a thing’ and ‘How high the moon’ obvious highlights. In comparison ‘Lonely woman’ is slightly less satisfying, though still an excellent recording overall. The centrepiece of this album was the version of Ornette Coleman’s title track and it just went to show how diverse jazz musicians could be for the MJQ and the Coleman quintet were at completely opposite ends of the musical spectrum, yet could still manage to appreciate one another. Elsewhere the album is noteworthy for small group interpretations of pieces that were previously attempted with larger orchestrations such as ‘Fugato’ and ‘Lamb. Leopard’. New ground was being explored on the album ‘The Sheriff’ with Brazilian flavours entering into the MJQ repertoire, but in keeping with the group’s approach, attempted from a more classical side that took on board J.S. Bach. Of note are the versions of ‘Carnaval’ and ‘Bachianas brasileras’. This would have made an ideal pairing with another album the MJQ cut a few years later, ‘Collaboration with Almeida’, Almeida being a Brazilian guitarist.

For the rest of the box set the other two albums are devoted to the fusion of classical and jazz genres. ‘Third Stream Music’ is the more famous and features on two pieces the trio of Jimmy Giuffre (Jim Hall and Ralph Peña) while on another two compositions the Beaux Arts string quartet are present. If in today’s hotch-potch of musical interwaeaving this comes across as a tad passé, it should not detract one from the laudable attempt to bring together classical and jazz genres. The much rarer ‘Modern Jazz Quartet + Orchestra’ is frankly the least enticing of the five albums and the MJQ sound hindered by the presence of so many strings. The only minor gripe here, then, on an otherwise fine selection of albums and at a bargain price is that for all their prowess in the studio, it is, perhaps, their live recordings that are most revered and in this respect it is a little disappointing that this has not been reflected in the contents of the box set. The double live in Europe album is an essential listen and one hopes that the superb and now extremely hard to find on vinyl album ‘Live at the Lighthouse’ from 1967 will finally see the light of day on CD, possibly with some extras. In the meantime this selection of albums is the ideal place to start for the MJQ neophyte and what a treat they will have in store.

Tim Stenhouse