The Quincy Jones-Sammy Nestico Orchestra: Basie & Beyond


By Ben Varkentine

Among Quincy Jones’ many awards is an Emmy for his theme to the opening episode of Roots. On the big-bandstand is where his own roots are, and it’s clear that he still feels an incredible loyalty to the kind of music that first got into his skull when he was a young man in the ‘40s. He’d spend the early part of the ‘50s as a trumpet player (Lionel Hampton Band, etc.), and by the end of that decade his versatility was already apparent as he was working as an arranger and composer for albums by Count Basie, among many others. Not as well known as Jones, but one of the most prolific orchestrators in music, Sammy Nestico also gained fame arranging for the Basie orchestra following about a decade after Jones. This album is the two men’s tribute to their past, being a collection of compositions either written for Basie, after his style, or what Nestico says he imagines he “...might have wanted to hear from us, if he were still around today.” Basie, of course, is not around today (more’s the pity) and neither are too many of his best sidemen, and they are missed.

I’ve killed the idea of saying who I think came out “ahead” between Jones and Nestico when it comes to writing and arranging here. Both because I think they would insist, quite rightly, that they are hardly in competition with each other, and because some of the most interesting charts on the album blur the lines and mix the tonal colors. “Grace,” for example, was written by Jones (with Jeremy Lubbock) and appeared as the B-side to his production, “We Are the World.” Here however, it is arranged by Nestico with a delicate, unreal feeling featuring Kirk Whalum on soprano sax. And Nestico wrote the lovely ballad “Lisette,” but it’s named after and inspired by Jones’ girlfriend.

The most modern-sounding charts here are “Hard Sock Dance,” by Jones, and “The Joy of Cooking,” by Nestico. The former is awfully workmanlike jazz, but good. Largely by virtue of Jimmy Johnson’s electric bass which keeps this one simmering, the latter overcomes, for the most part, a problem that dampens my enthusiasm for the rest of the album slightly: The same sort of earnest, you-will-like-this-music-because-it’s-good-for-you feeling I get watching old episodes of The Cosby Show in which one of the grandparents (all of whom were great jazz musicians) played, or on Smithsonian Institution albums. There are times when this album sounds like an attempt to reanimate a kind of music that has disappeared. And yet there are other times when I think that if there were a God, this album would be selling in Backstreet Boys numbers.

I’ve always really liked Jones’ compositions for Basie; though the albums are out of print they routinely turn up on best-of compilations. Which is where I first heard “For Lena and Lennie,” from his first album with Basie in ‘58 and written and named for Lena Horne and her husband. That version is an example of how Jones knows how to make a ballad swing with horns; here, it’s taken to a higher, almost spiritual plane with another great soprano sax performance, this one by Dan Higgins.

“Out of the Night” swings like hell. A renamed version of a song from Nestico’s first album, it’s got tight Latin percussion under a wonderfully loose electric guitar solo by Paul Jackson, Jr. It sounds like no version of the Basie band I’ve ever heard, except for one thing: Did I mention it swings like hell? Only one let down: I dearly wish it had been recorded with a “concert” ending rather than a fade; it closes the album and I’d rather it threw down than trickled away.

It’s rare that you get Quincy Jones in front of a big band orchestra these days. The busy composer, producer, record executive, and publisher just doesn’t have enough time—due to the fullness of his datebook, this album was recorded in two days. It doesn’t show much. It is the sound of two men looking back with non-retro affection, and though it’s not the album I would choose to introduce a novice—I’d want a best-of by a real Basie band for that—for jazz/big band/swing fans, this is a celebration worth celebrating.

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