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The Clairvoyant Quincy Jones

I spoke with the 28-time Grammy-winning discussed his new young protégé pianists, the state of music piracy, and his ability to recognize & capitalize on the untapped talent of his collaborators. This article was originally published by iRockJazz.com in May 2013.

Ray Charles. Miles Davis. Duke Ellington. Donna Summer. Michael Jackson. George Benson. Chaka Khan. Frank Sinatra. Lena Horne. These are some of the greatest, most famous recording artists of the 20th century, all of them linked by a common component: Quincy Delight Jones, Jr.

The legendary impresario (calling him a musician/arranger/conductor/composer/producer/mentor/media mogul would be as longwinded as it is accurate) has worked with gods and goddess and on the biggest stages in the world from the Hollywood Bowl to Japan’s Budokan Arena.

At age 80, his work ethic and influence are as strong as ever, but how does he do it? How on Earth did this trumpet player from Chicago get gigs writing movie scores for Sidney Lumet, TV show themes like Sanford & Son, arranging albums for Count Basie, producing anthems like “We Are The World,” and carve diamonds-in-the-rough like The Brothers Johnson, Siedah Garrett and Tamia into bona fide hit-makers? “I don’t know,” Jones answered when asked by iRockJazz. “I can’t explain it, but I see it before they see it.”

Psychic powers, maybe? Does his limousine come equipped with a flux capacitor in it, allowing him to travel to the future? His perceived clairvoyance, when properly examined, is the product of open-mindedness, a sacred pursuit of knowledge, and the willingness to help people be their best selves in the face of doubt and indifference amongst the masses.

Jones’ melodic sonar of an ear has now found another talented blip on the radar of the music world in the form of 11-year-old pianist Emily Bear. Q literally could have his choice of ready-for-the-world adult artists to groom, so why a pre-pubescent pianist?

This is not without precedent.

Jones’ penchant for finding talent has no age limit. Patti Austin, one of Q’s go-to vocalists (“Razzamatazz,” “Baby, Come To Me”) was but a little three-year-old girl when The Dude saw her instantly memorizing vocal takes of her Queen of the Blues godmother Dinah Washington in the 1950s. Leslie Gore was all of 16 when Mercury Records gave her tapes to Q because they didn’t know what to do with her – resulting in the 1963 number one smash “It’s My Party.” When Tevin Campbell sang on Jones’ 1989 hit “Tomorrow (A Better You, Better Me),” he was only 12. Ergo, it shouldn’t be a surprise that Bear is his latest project.

“She’s been a composer since she was, like, four years old,” Jones spoke of Bear. “I call her baby Mozart.” That’s a mighty grand assertion, but it just may be precise. The majority of her 2013 debut Diversity – produced by Jones – consists of songs she composed between six and 10 years of age, and all songs that are incredibly dynamic, emotive, vivid, and accessible.

Diversity marks the second album in as many years that Jones produced a young, prodigious pianist. Last year, he and then 26-year-old Alfredo Rodriguez dropped Sounds of Space, a collection of songs that, Jones contends, are so amazing they’ll “make you smack your grandpapa!” Rodriguez was classically trained in his native Cuba and severely impressed Jones at the Montreux Jazz Festival in 2007 with his uncanny ability to fuse various influences into a performance and composition style unlike anything being played today…or yesterday. “I’ve never heard anything like that in my life before,” Jones gushed about Rodriguez. “He’ll outdo anybody on the planet, and I don’t care who it is. I’m not guessing. He practices 14 hours a day, orchestrates everything, you name it: jazz, salsa, anything. He’s a junkie. Nobody can touch him.” 

Having collaborated with the greatest pianists who ever lived, including Chick Corea, George Duke, and Greg Phillanganes, it’s safe to conclude that Jones isn’t just talking up his protégé for exposure. Jones believes that Bear, Rodriguez, and a host of other young, worldly musicians are the key to the future, as they share a unifying trait with those aforementioned greats of the past and present; “They do everything they’re supposed to do – they work hard and they feel heard, and [have] strong will to work,” Jones explained. “They can revolutionize the dumbing down that’s been happening the last few years. They can take that quality right back up.”

To say that music today has been dumbed down would be a monolithic understatement. In this society of just-add-water stars with shows like American Idol and X-Factor, the population is still being force-fed singers who fit into the right marketing mold and portray the winning image that will ensure record sales. The irony is that it’s this vote-em-N-mold-em culture that’s contributing to the current free fall in music. “I’m more concerned about the record industry,” Jones revealed. “We have 98 percent piracy all over the world and that’s a problem.”

Perhaps one of the reasons illegal downloading occurs so profusely is because there isn’t much product with high enough quality to make people want to spend money on it. Jones has never been a believer in image-over-art. He’s proven so by exploiting talents in individuals that no one bothered to look for, not even the individuals themselves. Rapper Will Smith never would’ve become the lead in The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air had it not been for the persistence insistence of Jones, a seven-time Academy Award nominee. It was Jones who convinced keyboardist James Ingram that his gruff singing voice would be an asset on career-defining songs “Just Once,” “A Hundred Ways,” and “Yah Mo Be There.” Who else but Q could envision a Chicago news anchor in Oprah Winfrey as portraying Sophia in The Color Purple? When everyone else said no, The Dude said go.

“There’s a power in being underestimated,” Jones stated. “People get out of your way when you get underestimated.  When I did The Color Purple, people said ‘Steven Spielberg is a five million dollar movie director. How is Quincy gonna get him to direct his first film?’ But it happened.” When an artist has no expectations to follow, that’s when they often create their most free, honest, and best results (i.e. Jackson and Jones’ Off the Wall).

One of the ways Jones has managed to create expectation-free environments for himself and his collaborators has been consistently reacting to the writing on the wall. Take today’s emerging movement of jazz/hip-hop fusion that’s being spearheaded by musicians like Robert Glasper, Jose James, and Chris Dave. Their albums, an antidote to traditional jazz, have garnered praise by the public and press as revolutionary when, in fact, Jones created the template for this movement decades before.

His 1989 Back on the Block album won six Grammys for juxtaposing jazz heavyweights like Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, and Ella Fitzgerald with golden era MCs Grandmaster Melle Mel, Ice-T, Kool Moe Dee, and Big Daddy Kane. The seeds of this historical LP were sown by Jones in 1975 when enlisting spoken word pioneers The Watts Prophets for his album Mellow Madness’ “Beautiful Black Girl.” Jones contends that a lingering disconnect of heritage in America is contributing to music’s descent in quality and commerce. “They don’t even know when it started,” Jones spoke of hip-hop’s foundation. “I asked some very talented guys ‘What do you think is the beginning of rap,’ they’d say ‘1971 with Gil Scott-Heron.’ We were doing rap in Chicago in 1939. It comes from Africa; bungee and the griots.”

Knowledge and respect of music’s true origins is just one of a series of components that have given Quincy Jones a telepathic sense of the future. The kind of crystal ball he operates doesn’t consist of cloud-like images of the yet to come, but a never-ending acquisition and application of technical smarts and historical wisdom. As he put it himself in his 2010 book Q on Producing, it’s all about finding the right balance of “soul and science.”

“It’s mathematics,” Jones professed, “‘cause music and mathematics are married, man; God married them. Coltrane had that every time. He got “Giant Steps” from an opening example of humming exertion. Every time I saw him, he did it, that’s why it sounds like it’s mechanical. When you read the binary and trinary numbers and you know your shit, you’ll see left brain, right brain, everything’s music in motion.” Jones will continue to see the music in motion as he molds future legends, therefore making his list of collaborators all the more uncanny and praiseworthy. “I’ve been around long enough to have worked with all of them [chuckles]; Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday at 14, grew up with Ray Charles. It’s been a blessing.”

Categories
Order/Everything

Order Is Everything: Collecting…John Coltrane

*Originally published by Revive Music in September 2013*

Good morn’ or evening, friends.  Welcome to the latest installment of Order is Everything.  This is a how-to-guide for music lovers looking to invest in the catalogs of prolific artists.  

These articles will instruct – better yet suggest – the would-be consumer on not only which albums to buy, but also in which order to collect them.  You might think to buy them in chronological order, but for a great artist with 10 or more albums, there’s a science to collecting the records.  First of all, not every record is essential to own; secondly, the first purchase is crucial to the listening experience of the consumer. 

The first album you buy must be a microcosm of their entire career, and/or, at the very least, must be equally creative and accessible.  Basically, if you like the first CD you buy, the very next one in line is an expansion of what you’ve heard, making it more likely that you’ll purchase it.  As you go on, you’ll develop a genuine admiration of the artists’ music.  Our next artist is John Coltrane.

Revered by almost all who have heard his work, John William Coltrane is the most famous, beguiling and respected saxophonists of all time. ‘Trane made a name for himself playing with Miles Davis, making unparalleled history together with records like Kind of Blue, ‘Round About Midnight and Someday My Prince Will Come.

He also aligned himself with Thelonious Monk to make for short-lived but legendary pairing. Soon enough, Coltrane went from sideman to leader in 1957 with Prestige Records and 1960, he never looked back. From then until his death in 1967 at age 40, John Coltrane set the bar high for musicians and composers, all while challenging the boundaries and tenants of jazz, and himself.

He used his gift as a way to profess his love, exercise his demons, extract rage from his listeners, encourage spirituality and uplift all within earshot of his horn. His influence in music is so severe that it’s nearly impossible not to cross reference him and his work when mentioning any other saxophonist, tenor or otherwise. Many have tried to concur his complex sense of harmonics and technique, but when you really get down to it, Coltrane was a blues player who changed music forever.

Although there are well over 50 releases of his work, there were 24 official albums, studio and live, of John Coltrane as a leader. Of those, 10 albums are essential to own for all music lovers. Here they are, and this is the order in which to acquire them

  1. Giant Steps (1960)

If you’re going to own one Coltrane album, then this has to be the one. Then again, after one listen, you won’t be able to stop at just one. Featuring heavy hitters like bassist Paul Chambers and drummer Jimmy Cobb, this is a perfect place to begin your Coltrane collection. His first album of all his own compositions, Giant Steps is the prototype for what was dubbed as his “sheets of sound;” ultra-melodic, feverish soloing and vastly expressive. Nearly every song can be considered a standard, but none more so than its game-changing title track and the ubiquitous ballad, “Naima.”

2. Blue Train (1957)

Now that you’ve indulged in the vibrant “sheets of sound” that was Giant Steps, prepare yourself for another collection of life altering music. This album was Coltrane’s first and only release on Blue Note Records, and he surely made the most of it. The title track only is worth the price, while “Moment’s Notice” is another signature ‘Trane piece, enhanced by sideman like Philly Joe Jones and trumpeter Lee Morgan. Blue Train is where the legend of Coltrane truly began taking shape.

3. My Favorite Things (1961)

As radical and imaginative as the previous records were for their time, both Blue Train and Giant Steps are richly accessible over time, with modest song lengths and instantly memorable melodies. However, straight from the first track, “My Favorite Things” is a 13 minute exercise in modal jazz perfection that you’ll find is not a second too long.

This album may be the definitive record of Coltrane on Soprano saxophone and features the first appearance of his longtime pianist, McCoy Tyner, whose solos make him an equal star of the title song. ‘Trane, as you’ll discover, had an uncanny ability to making cover songs his own, and he molds this classic tune from The Sound of Music into a seminar of swing and blues that Rogers and Hammerstein could never dream up. This record, including a hard-hitting take on Gershwin’s “Summertime,” helped non-jazz music fans take notice of Coltrane and his genius, getting rotation on college radio stations and inspiring rock musicians like The Doors.

4. Coltrane’s Sound (1964)

Compiling albums out of various non-cohesive sessions was a common practice in jazz in the 1950s and 1960s, and it was no different for Coltrane. Record companies eager to capitalize on his success after expiring contracts spit out many thrown together LPs. The “Order is Everything” series – you’ll find later – is strictly anti-compilation, but this is the best of that bunch and a special exception must be made. All six tracks possess that signature Coltrane tone and blues, but the standouts are the moody “Equinox” and “Central Park West,” which are among his most celebrated compositions.

5. Duke Ellington & John Coltrane (1963)

Four words: “In a Sentimental Mood.” While The Duke and ‘Trane shared top billing for this album, it continued the reoccurring theme of at least one instant standard per Coltrane project. As unparallel as Coltrane was as a tenor saxophonist, Ellington had a way to getting the best out of his collaborators (i.e. Money Jungle with Charles Mingus and Max Roach), and this album sees ‘Trane use a sense of restraint and fluidity that served the songs best; a trait that he would incorporate in future recordings to great effect.

6. John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman (1963)

From one famous pairing to another, this album is among the very best when it comes to voice and instrumentalist collaborative albums (see Nancy Wilson with Cannonball Adderley). The juxtaposition of Hartman’s thick, slow moving baritone with Coltrane’s emotional soloing proved both romantic and moving. Although only comprised of ballads like “Lush Life” and “Autumn Serenade,” John Coltrane & Johnny Hartman is quietly dynamic, displaying textures that subliminally melancholy and complex.

7. A Love Supreme (1965)

It can be argued that this is Coltrane’s best album, and its position at this in the order is curious to say the least. While such an assertion is more than valid, this album, in terms of skills and scope, is a hard pill to shallow for those who are new to his work, therefore explaining its placement here. Coltrane famously battled drug addiction briefly, but his unabashed faith in God made him a new man and this album is direct reflection of that faith. A four part suite, A Love Supreme is the crowning achievement of Coltrane’s eponymous quartet, including Tyner, drummer Elvin Jones and bassist Jimmy Garrison.  It’s free form, melodic, cryptic and redemptive all at once. And if nothing else, “Resolution” will bring you to your knees!

8. Live At Birdland (1963)

There are a myriad of exquisite live recordings of Coltrane; Live at Village Vanguard, Newport ’63, and Live at the Half Note: One Down, One Up, but the cream of the crop is Live at Birdland. Like the aforementioned albums, Birdland features ‘Trane alongside members of his quartet, once again on soprano sax. Here you’ll get to experience Coltrane on stage, where he was at his most entrancing, engaging and unfiltered. 

The LP opener is the definitive version of Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue,” and the studio recording of “Alabama,” his response to the Birmingham church bombing that infamously killed four little girls, is a four dimensional look into the heart of a nation full of hurt, fury and confusion that will stir the souls of all who hear it. His cadenza during “I Want to Talk About You” is a glimpse of Coltrane unaccompanied and at his most raw.

9. Africa/Brass (1961)

Having navigated the freeways and back alleys of be-bop, hard bop, free jazz and otherwise, you get to behold Coltrane fronting a large ensemble on Africa/Brass. This album is one of great importance due to its inclusion of equally enigmatic saxophonist Eric Dolphy. Together, he and ‘Trane pushed jazz’s traditional envelope with precise abandon.

With a 12 player ensemble, including Jones, trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, and bassist Reggie Workman, Tyner and Dolphy arranged the brass and orchestrated the band respectively, providing primal, yet multifarious backdrops for Coltrane to create lasting impressions on songs like “Greensleeves,” and the title track.

10. Ascension (1965)

Lastly, the intricate wall of sound of Africa/Brass leads to free jazz of Ascension, Coltrane’s most notorious foray into free jazz.  Once again, he worked with a large cast – 11 musicians – with Hubbard, Tyner, Jones and Garrison returning, Ascension was not as chaotic as Ornette Coleman’s work, but was a continuous session without a track list. Within the faintest sense of structure was the occasion of horn players releasing, rather than playing, taking solos between a collage of random sound, and Jones thundering away possessed power. Fellow tenor player Pharoah Sanders proved to play a crucial role, inspiring ‘Trane to continue on the free jazz path with him for the final two years of his life.

For you completists out there, here are the remaining John Coltrane albums:

* Recommended, but not essential

Coltrane (1957)

John Coltrane & the Red Garland Trio (1958)

Soultrane (1958)

Coltrane Jazz (1961)

Ole Coltrane (1961)*

Coltrane (1962)

Live at the Village Vanguard [Live] (1962)*

Impressions (1963)

Crescent (1964)*

The John Coltrane Quartet Plays… (1965)

New Thing at Newport [Live] (1966)

Kulu Se Mama (1966)

Meditations (1966)*

Expression (1967)

Hope we were helpful…

Categories
Podcasts Videos

‘Get Off The Fence’ Podcast Features Debate Between Two Common Classics

Get Off The Fence, the premier music debate podcast, is now four weeks into its relaunch, as a DEF|Y|NE Media production!

Episode 4 original aired in March 2018 and features host and producer Matthew Allen, debating with Scienz of Life rapper and TV host JR Robinson, about which classic Common album is the best: 2000’s Like Water For Chocolate or 2005’s Be.

DEF|Y|NE Media is happy to announce that Get Off The Fence is now also available on Apple Podcasts and Google Podcasts for distribution and downloads. You can subscribe at the RSS site:

Which album do YOU prefer? Who made the better case for their album? Listen, comment & subscribe! A new episode will premiere every Monday.

Each week, DEF|Y|NE Media is providing the playlist of all the songs played each episode in our weekly Get Off The Fence Soundtrack on Spotify. Each playlist is curated in the identical order they appear in the episode: