It’s doubtful that anyone else could assemble the kind of cast that Quincy Jones did for a long-overdue retrospective of his improbable career at Hollywood Bowl Wednesday night. It looked like a lineup for his next album — whenever that will be — or for his last several ones over the past four decades. Granted, the performances sometimes lacked the polish and sheen of those painstakingly-assembled recordings. But no matter; the sense of occasion was there and Uncle Q was right in the center of it — conducting, emceeing, spinning tales from his bottomless bag of showbiz anecdotes, and dispensing sage, never-say-die aphorisms like “Once you get over-the-hill, you really pick up some speed!”
So it is with Jones, who at 78 continues to keep his finger squarely on the pulse of American pop music amidst a thousand other things. Yet this concert was dedicated to the past — where even the youngest performers like 17-year-old singer Nikki Yanofsky and 10-year old pianist Emily Bear were working in venerable idioms that dot Quincy’s six decades in the music biz.
With some hopscotching around, the show covered a lot of ground — reaching as far back as to what Jones claimed was his first big band arrangement written at 18, a sophisticated blues called “Kingfish” set at a loping tempo that anticipated his definitive chart of “Killer Joe” some 18 years later. We were guided through some of his memorable film and television themes, the all-star albums that gradually morphed from jazz into soul and a goulash of styles, the super-sleek productions that became career high points for the Brothers Johnson and Michael Jackson. Oddly enough, hip-hop — which Q has embraced for more than two decades and dominates his latest release “Soul Bossa Nostra” — was missing.
Some of the best moments of the night came from previously unbilled surprise guests. Frank Sinatra, Jr. movingly traced the contours of his dad’s vocal on Jones’s Basie-band chart of “Fly Me To The Moon” — as close as we’ll ever get to hearing Q and Frank Sr. work again in this life. Three core members of Toto — keyboardists David Paich and Steve Porcaro and guitarist Steve Lukather – joined the ensemble for a smooth, beautiful rendition of Porcaro’s “Human Nature” in the Jackson memorial section. Trumpeter Arturo Sandoval blasted as fast, high and loud as he could in “Manteca”; it wasn’t like Dizzy Gillespie, the model, but it was pretty exciting.
There were some disappointments: the sound became muddled and imbalanced in the second half; the Brothers Johnson couldn’t get anything going until two-thirds of the way through their last number, “Stomp!”; Gloria Estefan’s vocal on “Home” (from “The Wiz”) was undercut by jarring projected scenes from 9/11.
For some unreconstructed Quincy Jones fans, though, seeing him at last out from behind the scenes in front of a roaring big band (whose ranks included the great Ernie Watts on tenor sax and flute) for a whole concert was an improbable spectacle in itself — and worth the evening alone. Hopefully, there will be more such sightings, for he seems interested.