Saturday, September 4, 2010

Quincy Jones: Talkin' Verve (2001)

Growing up in the '80s you couldn't help but be aware of Quincy Jones. Between Michael Jackson and USA for Africa, you'd definitely heard of him; but chances are you never had much idea of why. Okay, sure, he was a producer - but why was he getting interviewed when other producers weren't? And why was he credited for "Just Once" and "One Hundred Ways" when it was James Ingram singing? Later, of course, I learned more and started to understand what it meant to be a producer, and came to appreciate the value of professionalism in the music industry, and to see that what I'd been aware of as "Quincy Jones" growing up in the '80s was only the tail end of a much longer career in American music, one that (and this is something that's impossible to appreciate when you're young) transcended momentary fads in pop.

This album helps get that across - a little bit. I think Jones's kind of accomplishment is the thing that doesn't really translate well to records, because it's more a matter of organization. Even this disc, which draws from a bunch of records he did under his own name, mostly conducting and arranging himself, includes work that he evidently didn't have much to do with besides sponsoring. And as nice as some of this music is, I think it would be forgotten today if "Soul Bossa Nova" hadn't been used in the Austin Powers movies - and there it was used, like everything else, as a goof.

This collection tries to make the case for Jones as an important bandleader and arranger in the same way as the Lalo Schifrin disc in the same series. I don't think it works as well. I don't think it's because Schifrin's roots in jazz were any deeper than Jones's - they both, interestingly, passed through Dizzy Gillespie's band. But the records Schifrin did under his own name (if the disc I have is representative - and it may not be) do seem to aspire to jazz seriousness in a way that Jones's didn't (again, if this disc is a fair sample).

That's a convoluted way of arriving at the conclusion that these tracks sound gimmicky, like big-band novelty tunes. Some of them are pretty enjoyable even so: "Comin' Home Baby" is a fine walk down the dirty side of jazz pop, with great work from Jim Hall on guitar and Roland Kirk on flute. The two movie themes, "Funny Farm" and "Rack 'Em Up," are priceless slivers of multifaceted film jazz, combining ultra-atmospheric touches (ominous noirish background murmurs on the first, "ch-ch-ch-ch-cha" noises on the second) with funky keyboards. As with Schifrin, bits and pieces of some of these numbers were sampled by club jazzers in the '90s.

But the 2001 release date on this disc probably contributes to what drags it down, which is the focus on easy-listening style covers of improbably chosen contemporary pop songs - "Hard Day's Night," "Hang On, Sloopy," "Okie From Muskogee." Here the groovy ornamentation is utterly misapplied; I think the only way to appreciate these records now is as camp, which is how the lounge boomlet heard them, and that's who the Verve suits were aiming at by 2001.

Which means, I guess, that I'm pretty particular about my jazz-revival overtones. Japanese and European-style acid-jazz skinny-tie-and-horn-rims vinyl-rummaging rare-groove obsessing Blue Note Records-worshiping serious irony: yes. American-style lounge Vegassy martini-swizzling tiki-bar send-up irony, as unfocused as a Mike Meyers movie: not so much.

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