The Modern Jazz Quartet, or MJQ to give them their more commonly used and informal name, were in a rich vein of form when they cut this fine album, recorded in 1963 and released a year later on their favoured and long-time label, Atlantic records. In fact, the album formed part of a prolific two days of recording, with the first day comprising what is heard here on, ‘The Sheriff’, while the second became another album entirely, ‘Concorde’. The first of these reflects a growing interest in both Brazilian music and in adapting the music of J.S. Bach and, more generally, his approach within the jazz idiom. Both elements come together on what is undoubtedly an album highlight, ‘Bachianas Brasileiros’, by the Brazilian classical composer, Heitor Villa Lobos, who was well-known for combining his interest in native Brazilian folk music with western classical. This interpretation has a strong Bach influence to it which competes with, elsewhere in the piece, a bossa nova percussive accompaniment and piano vamp from John Lewis. Part way through this passage, the bowed bass and piano crescendo morph into a refined bossa complete with Latin piano vamp and Milt Jackson’s vibraphone in a lead role. Simply put, this is a wonderful slice of Brazilica that does not conform to the then currently in vogue bossa nova formula. Indeed, the MJQ’s love of Brazilian music was explored further on the ‘Collaboration’, an album with Brazilian guitarist, Laurinda Almeida.
A second Brazilian theme, ‘Carnival’, by Luiz Bonfa that concludes ‘The Sheriff’ on a high, is, in fact, the theme from Black Orpheus which was made into a delightful French film that dissected Afro-Brazilian culture as viewed from the finely nuanced prism of French director, Marcel Camus, and won top prize of the Palme D’or at the Cannes film festival in 1959. This infinitely subtle take makes for a thrilling way to end the album as a whole. The rest of the album is very much in the MJQ tradition, which means focusing on leader John Lewis’ own innovative and occasionally challenging compositions such as the title track which uses a staccato rhythm in the main motif, yet still reverts to basic storytelling which it communicates most effectively. A single standard from the American Songbook. ‘Mean to me’, stays close to the original. Excellent and incisive back cover sleeve notes from jazz writer Leonard Feather are right on the ball when noting, ‘Rarely, if ever, has the J [Jazz] in MJQ been more continuously observable’. Well worth investigating as is, ‘Collaboration’, which is probably this writer’s preferred studio album of the MJQ in their prime.