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May 2008

Quincy Jones
The Quincy Jones ABC/Mercury Big Band Jazz Sessions
Mosaic Records

Quincy Jones, a 2008 NEA Jazz Master, stood out from his fellow honorees when they gathered in Toronto at this year’s IAJE conference. For unlike trumpeter Joe Wilder and the rest, “Q” traveled with a security detail. He is among the hugest of pop-music celebrities, but as the NEA has rightly acknowledged, nothing can elide his early achievements as a jazz arranger and bandleader. Mosaic’s five-disc Quincy Jones box set is well timed, therefore. The fact that Wilder, perhaps the least widely known NEA Jazz Master to date, appears on several of these historic sessions is a delicious irony.

In his booklet essay (illustrated by Chuck Stewart’s classic photographs), Brian Priestly takes the measure of Quincy Jones, the sought-after arranger for James Moody, Dinah Washington, Dizzy Gillespie and more, who defied the economic odds and launched his own working big band, long after the close of the big band era. Jones’ group was predominantly African-American—still unusual at that time, Priestly notes—though one of the most prominent solo voices was Phil Woods, whose mellifluous bop alto gilds this box from start to finish.

Disc one lands us in 1956 with music from This Is How I Feel About Jazz, featuring a hungry Charles Mingus, not to mention Herbie Mann, Hank Jones, Lucky Thompson, Art Farmer, Milt Jackson and so on. The encounters are just that eye-popping, all the way through. Thad Jones and Freddie Hubbard trade blues choruses a bit later on “Hard Sock Dance.” Jackson returns on disc five, bringing the set full-circle with an all-star 1964 session (We Had a Ball) that features Gillespie alongside Roland Kirk, J. J. Johnson, Art Blakey and others, playing burning Benny Golson arrangements from an obscure musical.

The bulk of the material ranges from 1959 to 1961, the period that spawned The Birth of a Band, The Quintessence, I Dig Dancers and several other titles. (Some of this repertoire appears on Live in ’60, the Jazz Icons DVD release of 2006.) Many things stand out, but the work of two women, pianist Patti Bown and trombonist Melba Liston, cannot be overlooked. Liston contributes the forward-looking “Tone Poem” and has a beautiful feature on “Solitude.” Bown seizes the spotlight on “They Say It’s Wonderful” and holds her own at a Zurich jam session with Woods, Hubbard and Curtis Fuller. She also offers the ambitious swinger “G’wan Train,” marked by the finely wrought textures of Les Spann on guitar, Sahib Shihab on baritone and Julius Watkins on French horn. Jones’ attention to the artistry of Bown and Liston reflects superb judgment.

This box is not without its hokey numbers (“Syncopated Clock,” “The Hucklebuck”), complicating the notion that “Q” turned to pop only later. But on these 18 recording dates—produced by the likes of Creed Taylor, Bob Thiele and Jack Tracy, arranged not only by Jones but also Billy Byers, Ralph Burns and more—the abundant treasures far outweigh the isolated duds.

Originally published in May 2008
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