LP REVIEW: Quincy Jones and His Orchestra – The Quintessence/Big Band Bossa Nova

Quincy Jones and His Orchestra – The Quintessence/Big Band Bossa Nova
(Vinyl Passion VP 80780. LP review by Andrew Cartmel)

There is no shortage of jazz being reissued on vinyl. Almost all of it consists of digital transfers of public domain material. That is also true of a new series of LPs from Vinyl Passion. However, a couple of things make these releases stand out from the pack. For a start, despite being pressed on good quality 180gram vinyl, they’re reasonably priced. More importantly, the records are rather lovingly curated by some people who seem to know what they’re doing, and care about it.

This double album consists of two albums by Quincy Jones. The first is The Quintessence, originally released on the Impulse label (Impulse AS-11) in 1961 and a superb modern big band set. The compositions include a couple of standards, Straight, No Chaser by Thelonious Monk and Invitation by Bronislau Kaper, but otherwise consist of originals by Jones himself, Billy Byers or Benny Golson. It should be noted that all three of these men were top arrangers — Billy Byers in particular is an unsung hero in jazz. One reason Byers is less known than he should be is that he was happy to remain anonymous, ghost writing for Quincy Jones among others. When the journalist Gene Lees asked Billy Byers why he was content with this situation, Byers replied, “Quincy’s good at the politics and business part of it. I just want to do my writing.”

In any case, The Quintessence is a showcase for excellent composing and dynamic arrangements. And the roster of soloists is phenomenal. The sax section includes Oliver Nelson, Jerome Richardson and Phil Woods. On trumpet we have Clark Terry, Thad Jones and Freddie Hubbard, and Curtis Fuller is among the trombones. Woods is wonderful on the title track, providing a rhapsodic, unfurling introduction. And Freddie Hubbard and Oliver Nelson distinguish themselves in the contemporary urban strut of Robot Portrait, a Billy Byers composition. Nelson’s solo here is majestic, towering and endlessly articulate. And Hubbard responds with a sharp, chattering, masterfully judged flow of trumpet.

However, if The Quintessence is unadulterated, top shelf, mainstream jazz, Big Band Bossa Nova would seem to have rather more suspect credentials. Originally released by Mercury in 1962, when Quincy Jones was still head of A&R for that label, it’s not only part of the bossa nova craze, it’s very much in the space-age-bachelor-pad, lounge music genre — a status firmly cemented by the use of a track from the record, Soul Bossa Nova, in the Austin Powers movies. So it would be understandable if a jazz purist came out in hives just reading the catalogue number of this album (SR 60751). But dig a little deeper and you’ll find some amazing soloists, including the breathtaking presence of Roland Kirk, along with plenty more very tasty playing. Other instrumentalists include Phil Woods and Jerome Richardson back again, with the addition of Paul Gonsalves to the sax section. Clark Terry is back, too, Jim Hall plays guitar, and the authenticity of the album’s Latin American heritage is reinforced by the presence of Lalo Schifrin as pianist and composer. His tune, the loping Lalo Bossa Nova is outstanding, with a great sax solo. And one only has to listen to the sincere and elegant and lovely Serenata to realise this is not just meretricious bossa-craze cash-in, nor exotica ephemera.

Where the exotica ephemera does make an appearance is in the two bonus tracks appended to The Quintessence. Sadly they aren’t alternate takes or passed-over selections from the original Impulse sessions. Instead they’re taken from another Quincy Jones Mercury album, Around the World (PPS 6014). The culprits are Hot Sake and Baia. The faux-japonais of Hot Sake is hard to take, or at least hard to take seriously. Baia is better, but then most things are.

By contrast, the bonus tracks for Big Band Bossa Nova are terrific. A Taste of Honey and Shagnasty were two sides of a 7 inch single released in 1962 on Mercury (72012). As far as I can tell this is their only other appearance on vinyl since that day. A very nifty little addition, which makes this set suddenly of interest to collectors and Quincy Jones completists. That and the shocking purple vinyl, of course.

Just for the hell of it I put this reissue up against an original Impulse pressing of The Quintessence from my library, mastered by Rudy Van Gelder. This 1961 copy has greater scope, more detail and superior dynamics and generates considerably more excitement. To make a synaesthetic comparison, the original Impulse was a little like seeing a movie at the cinema, while the Vinyl Pleasure reissue was like watching it at home, albeit on a decent sized TV screen. The Vinyl Pleasure pressings are almost certainly digitally sourced, but they are nice clean, noise-free pressings and afford a great deal of enjoyment to the listener. And did I mention that they’re purple?

My only real beef with this very agreeable release is that it has been entirely stripped of the original liner notes and therefore there are no musician credits. I understand that a bare-bones presentation enables a pleasantly low price tag, but it wouldn’t have cost much to include an insert with some details of the personnel. Even a repurposed version of the press release would have been helpful. Enough moaning. To anyone less of a vinyl snob than yours truly, this is an ideal way to acquire some immensely enjoyable jazz.

Some final thoughts… Despite some excellent use of typography, the cover design of this album is rudimentary, to say the least. There are so many talented designers out there that it should be possible to do something really distinctive and attractive for a marginal cost. And Vinyl Pleasure might also consider giving this budget series a strong brand identity, so each release is clearly part of it. If they do this, then instead of just reissuing the collector’s items of yesterday they could be creating the collector’s items of tomorrow.

Categories: miscellaneous

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