From time to time Rifftides Washington, DC correspondent John Birchard favors us with reviews of musical events in his bailiwick. Here is his latest.
JAZZ AT VOA
Willis Conover Memorial Concert with a Tribute to Quincy Jones
April 26, 2008
Review by John Birchard
Quincy Jones is an icon, a legend. Heavy-laden with honorary doctorates, awards, Grammys (27 of them), Kennedy Center Honors, he is lauded for his work with Frank Sinatra, Barbara Streisand and Michael Jackson. Almost lost in the mists of time is the
reason Jones came to the attention of such artists: his enormous talent for composing and arranging for a big jazz band.
Last night, at the Voice of America auditorium in Washington, DC, those compositions and arrangements were brought back to life in a concert dedicated to the memory of VOA’s long-time host of jazz programs, Willis Conover. The Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra, under the direction of David Baker, presented a program of Quincy Jones charts that was – to borrow Mr. Jones’s middle name – a Delight.
I’m not a particularly big fan of jazz repertory bands and recreation of the hits of the past. But there are exceptions and this night was one of them. The program began with “Pleasingly Plump”, a medium-tempoed swinger that contains the essential elements of Jones’s work: a relatively simplicity in the writing, an attractive melody voiced in harmonies that are still fresh as the day they poured from his pen and a momentum that flows from beginning to end. It was obvious to this observer that the members of the SJMO were enjoying themselves with Jones’s music.
The band was crisp, well-rehearsed and the soloists were fired up. During the course of the evening, effective contributions came from trumpeters Tom Williams and Kenny Rittenhouse, trombonist Bill Holmes, saxophonists Scott Silbert, Charlie Young and Lyle Link, and the rhythm section of pianist Tony Nalker, bassist James King and drummer Ken Kimery.
The only non-Jones chart – Lester Young’s “Tickle Toe” – was arranged by Al Cohn, so there was no sag in quality. The rest of the night was devoted to Jones’ memorable sounds – “Jessica’s Day”, “Soul Bossa Nova” with piquant piccolo work from Scott Silbert and Charlie Young, and “The Quintessence” featuring a passionate solo from lead alto player Young, in a piece made memorable by another alto man, Phil Woods, back in the day.
The Smithsonian band performed at a high level throughout, but the highlight for this listener was its reading of “The Witching Hour”, which brought cheers from the audience. Jones’s chart is a model of big band writing, rich in harmonies, building through chorus after chorus and providing an inspirational setting for the soloists.
Other choice moments included the lovely ballad “Grace”, and Jones’ arrangements on Bobby Timmons’ “Moanin’”, the blues “Walkin’” and the swing era anthem “Air Mail Special” to wrap up a special evening. Somewhere, Willis Conover was smiling.