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Reviewed by Jeff Giles
ompilations are generally a cheap way of getting to know an artist. Sure, they can be useful for separating the wheat from the chaff, but pretty much any musician deserving of the compilation treatment is as interesting in the valleys as he is at the peaks, and settling for an incomplete picture deprives the listener of crucial context.
For a guy like Quincy Jones, however, compilations are crucial; the man called Q has done so much – and across so many boundary lines – that trying to acquaint oneself with all of it is a task that verges on the absurd. So much of Jones’ career output languishes in the shadows of various label vagaries and shortfalls that it’s difficult to even explain his accomplishments to inexperienced listeners – though he had his share of hits in the rock era, his role in recent decades has been one of producer (or, occasionally, glorified overseer). Children of the ‘80s who sought out Jones records such as 1989’s Back on the Block or 1981’s The Dude inevitably wondered just why in the hell his name was above the title.
The latest in a series of impeccable, long-overdue Montreux Festival DVDs, “Quincy Jones: 50 Years in Music” helps to fill in a few of those blanks. Presiding over a mind-bogglingly talented group of musicians, Jones cherry-picks his catalog and comes up with 20 tracks that celebrate his five decades as a working musician, from earlier cuts like “Kingfish” all the way down to standards such as “Let the Good Times Roll,” which he covered on later projects like 1996’s Q’s Jook Joint. He’s aided by the Montreux house band, the Northern Illinois University Jazz Band, and a long list of special guests, including Gerald Albright, James Morrison, David Sanborn, Phil Collins, Patti Austin, Chaka Khan, Mick Hucknall, and Toots Thielemans, all of whom get their chance to blow – and blow they do.
From a certain point of view, it’s a little sad watching Jones conduct the band; surgeries resulting from a 1974 brain aneurysm forced him to put down his trumpet. On the bright side, he’s never suffered from a shortage of ace musicians willing to line up and play for him, and that’s certainly the case here – jazz aficionados will be able instantly identify Steve Ferrone on the drums, Nathan East on the bass, and Greg Phillinganes on keyboards. Of course, the band isn’t really stretching here – the set list is more of a victory lap than an exploration – but that doesn’t detract from the performance at all, for the same reason people enjoy watching home run derbies and dunking contests: There’s a joy inherent in watching masters relax and have fun with their craft, and this show had it in spades.
This isn’t to say the show is laid back dinner theater – there are a number of occasions when Jones’ guests tear it up. The sax interplay between Morrison, Albright, and Sanborn on “Air Mail Special” is particularly noteworthy; listeners who have impugned Albright or Sanborn as smooth jazz hacks will be forced to eat their words after hearing them tease the edges of the song’s melody during their solos. Hearing Thielemans is, as always, a joy; his lyrical, heartbreakingly lovely harmonica runs make modern icons of the instrument – such as John Popper – sound like rank, fumble-tongued amateurs. Thielemans’ lead performance on “Grace Notes” may very well move you to tears.
The set’s vocal numbers are probably its weakest links; though Austin, Khan, and Hucknall are seasoned pros, and it’s easy to see why they were involved in the proceedings, you may come away feeling like their appearances stole time from the band – and while asking Phil Collins to come out and sing big band vocal numbers might not be the worst idea in the world, it’s a fairly nonsensical one considering the wealth of talent surrounding him (and the fact that there was enough room on the stage to fit a second drum kit, which would have enabled him to perform a drum duet with Ferrone – a much more enticing prospect than hearing him sing “Do Nothin’ Till You Hear from Me”).
The disc’s lone bonus feature is a “Quincy Jones Masterclass” featurette, which presents Jones rambling in front of an appreciative audience. It’s nothing to sneer at, certainly, but neither does it add a lot of value to the DVD. Thankfully, the main event more than justifies the $14.98 list price. Get it – and make sure you have a pillow for your jaw to land on during the high points.