Quincy Jones and a Spicy Chicken Combo

The list of my favorite jazz albums of all time is short and competition for the top spot is pretty intense.  Smokin’ at the Half Note, Jim Hall: Live, Mosaic, A Love Supreme, Jazz at Massey Hall, and Mingus Ah Um.  I’m not sure I could call any one my favorite and manage to sleep well at night.  It could be different from one day to the next and I feel a little weird leaving out a couple Wayne Shorter albums, some earlier Coltrane, the rest of Jim Hall’s discography, and a host of more recent albums like Invisible Cinema or Deep Song that I’ve come to love as well.  I do, however, have one album that I consider to be the most perfect jazz album of all time.  

Smokin’ and Live have more gripping improvisation and Mingus and A Love Supreme have more raw energy and intensity, but since the day nine years ago that I first heard it, I have believed wholeheartedly that there will never be a more perfect representation of “jazz” than Quincy Jones’s The Quintessence.

I met Kendall in jazz ensemble during the first semester of my freshman year of college.  I’m sure of that, though I’m unsure of quite how or when.  I just remember that midway through that fall, Kendall was there.  He was in my jazz combo and had a habit of bringing in original compositions that no one else could play and of sitting in the hallway “resting his chops” and listing to obscure jazz records without headphones while people tried to ignore it.  

We became friends rather quickly, in large part because I was using him for his enormous music collection.  We would go to the coffee shop in the library or the Panera across from campus after classes and listen to music for an hour or two until one of us had to leave for another obligation.  Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday between 2:00 and 3:00, we would sit, drink utterly obscene amounts of coffee, and split a set of ear buds.  At some point during that semester he introduced me to The Quintessence.

Kendall was a trumpet player and fancied himself a composer so the record had obvious attraction for him.  Counting only the brass players, the album features Thad Jones, Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Curtis Fuller, and Harvey Phillips.  It also boasts Oliver Nelson, Phil Woods, and (perhaps most importantly) Quincy Jones as big-band arranger, composer, and band-leader.

Kendall discovered the album years earlier when he expressed an interest in composing and his high school band director thrust the score for “Straight No Chaser” upon him, but he hadn’t listened to it much in recent years.  By winter, we had taken to leaving our Tuesday night performances at the bar next to the Panera, driving down the block to the Wendy’s, parking the car, and listening to The Quintessence from start to finish in almost complete silence as we ate chicken sandwiches and fries.

From the beginning the album is utter perfection.  The solo saxophone fluttering about and stretching and bending and crying over the low brass.  The harp twinkling over the churn of brushes on the snare drum.  The walls of trumpet and dramatic shakes and wabbles in pitch like vibrating glass spilling through speakers.

The title track is stunning, “Robot Portrait” exceptionally cool, “Straight No Chaser” a blistering master class in economy and restraint, and “Hard Sock Dance” a web of meticulously assembled counterpoint.  But I’m not sure anything has ever swung, or will ever swing, as hard as the last 90 seconds of “The Twitch” (which are, incidentally, the last 90 seconds of the entire album).

“The Twitch” is a bass tune, and as the upright begins walking, it does so from so far behind the beat, that the entire melody feels elastic; like a drop of water under a magnifying glass.  Liquid but viscous, changing shape, stretching and bending, always threatening to split and collapse but held together by a surface tension.  On the way back down from the solo sections, however, the song becomes something harder.  The melody begins to smolder, bouncing off of the composer’s signature offset trombone hits, and exploding off of piano pedals into a shout chorus big enough to fill the empty parking lot in the thunder of drums and wash of reeds and brass.

Still, the record always leaves me conflicted in some way.  “Straight No Chaser” was always one of my favorite tracks, but it’s barely two minutes long.  He squeezes two arrangements and six original tunes into just over half an hour, leaving next to no room for the extraordinary band he assembled to stretch out and improvise.  But each time I wish the trumpet squawked through the plunger for another chorus or two, I wonder if that’s really what I want.  

Part of what makes The Quintessence the perfect jazz album is the pure quality of the music – the energy, precision, controlled chaos, creativity, and originality.  But perhaps just as important is the band, the arranger, and the way in which they all subordinate their various talents in service of that music.  “The Twitch” swings, “Straight No Chaser” burns, and “The Quintessence” glistens, but the most remarkable part of the whole thing is that the musicians are interested in nothing more.  There is no bullshit, nothing unnecessary, only what must be there.  Hence the name, I guess.