Judge Jim Thomas watched this disc on his hands and knees, screaming "We're not worthy! We're not worthy!"
One man's extraordinary musical legacy.
Quincy Jones got his start playing trumpet for Lionel Hampton over sixty years ago; his gift for composition and arranging took off, and before long he was doing charts for the likes of Sarah Vaughn, Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and Ray Charles. He moved into the music business arena as well, discovering and developing talent such as Leslie Gore, and producing albums for Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson. He broke down barriers as one of the first African-Americans to write film scores, with soundtracks for (among others) The Pawnbroker, In the Heat of the Night, and The Color Purple. His 26 Grammys and 76 nominations are both records, and in 2001 he became a Kennedy Center Honoree. By any conceivable definition, he is a giant of American music.
The Montreux Jazz Festival has been held every year in Montreux, Switzerland, since 1967, and consistently brings the best and the brightest of music for two weeks of music. Though initially a jazz festival, the scope has broadened over the years, featuring acts as diverse as Miles Davis; Emerson, Lake, and Palmer; and Alice Cooper. The performances have spawned hundreds of live albums through the years. In recent years, Eagle Rock Entertainment has been bringing these performances to DVD.
In 1996, Quincy Jones came to Montreux to celebrate fifty years in music. The facts will show that this is one kick-ass DVD.
Facts of the Case
Jones conducts a band composed of Montreux's in-house band, the Northern Illinois University Jazz Band (the festival makes a point of including student performers), with additional backup provided by the likes of Patti Austin, David Sanborn, Chaka Khan, Phil Collins…you get the idea. The playlist provides a retrospective of Jones' career, from his big band roots through the present (the present of 1996, at least). The two hour-plus playtime hardly suffices to contain the man's output; on the upside, he gets to be most selective. Most of the pieces are his own compositions, but there are a few big band standards that he arranged.
Jones doesn't play during the concert; he suffered a severe brain aneurysm in 1974, and due to aftereffects from multiple brain surgeries was advised not to play again. But Jones still has a fondness for the horn, I'm sure, and Australian jazz great James Morrison gets some great trumpet solos as a result.
Going into this review, I was pretty much ignorant of the breadth of Jones' work; the first time he really came to my attention was with his score for the miniseries Roots. For the most part, I knew him as a producer instead of a musician. But rest assured, it only took a few tracks for the scales to fall from my eyes (or in this case, perhaps, the wax from my ears). I love big band jazz, and that's right where things start, with "Kingfish," one of his first compositions. Later, he mentions his band having to follow Duke Ellington at a festival, and after Ellington blew the crowd away, Jones' band had to play something "in self defense." That intro leads into a blistering performance of "Air Mail Special." Anyone with concerns about using a university jazz band for such a concert can rest easy; the Northern Illinois University Jazz Band is, in a word, spectacular. "Air Mail Special" has some insane sax rhythms, and these kids punch them out like seasoned pros.
The list of guest performers is stellar; David Sanborn provides some wonderful sax work, and Patti Austin and Chaka Khan both light up the stage on jazz and blues songs. Chaka Khan particularly shines doing "Miss Celie's Blues" from The Color Purple, and both she and Patti Austin just go to town on "Dirty Dozens." Of the vocalists, Phil Collins is perhaps the weakest; he had only recently started singing jazz, but in this lineup, that's probably a case of praising with faint damns (Collins may have also been hampered by some technical issues; see The Rebuttal Witnesses). Listening to these singers makes you realize that there's a vast gulf separating singers who live and breathe jazz and R&B and aging rockers who decide to start recording albums of old standards to appeal to an older audience (nope, I didn't have anyone in particular in mind, why do you ask?). The performance rates a 92 on the scales (given as acting).
Video is clear and crisp, which is about all you really care about for a disc like this. What you really want is the sound, and ladies and gentlemen, this disc delivers the goods. Deep, tight bass, rich midrange, crisp highs…between the DTS Digital Surround Sound and the Dolby Digital Surround 5.1, you'll be one happy camper. In fact, this disc has made me rethink my decision to replace my venerable floor-standing Polks with a pair of bookshelf speakers (it's a floor space/little children issue).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
On Phil Collins' first number, "After You've Gone," the band almost drowns out the lyrics. It's not an issue on his other numbers, and after rewatching the section a few times, I think the problem was that Collins was standing too close to the band; as a result, his mike picked up the band as well as him, and so the sound mixer couldn't get a proper balance.
The lone extra is billed as a "Masterclass." I don't know what that suggests to you, but to me it suggests something along the lines of a formal lecture. In reality, it's just an 11-minute clip of Jones sitting at a table, talking to an audience. It's not particularly focused; in fact, it rambles a good bit, which is a shame, really, as Jones makes some good points. The biggest point he makes is that to be a good musician, you have to embrace all types of music. He extends that into the current musical mainstream by noting that because music education in America has fallen so far by the wayside that the new generation of musicians-be it hip-hop, grunge, or whatever-knows virtually nothing about other types of music, greatly inhibiting their ability to grow as musicians (He mentions that Stravinsky, for instance, loved jazz and the blues). Instead, they just keep doing the same ol' same ol'. The case is strong, but considering that he's talking at a music festival, he's pretty much preaching to the choir, and missed a shot to really exhort his audience on the music education front.
This disc is going directly into my at-work playlist. An amazing overview of one of America's musical masters.
Mr. Jones is released, with the court's profound thanks.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Eagle Rock Entertainment
• Quincy Jones Masterclass
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