The Quintessence is perhaps the most accurate title ever given to a Quincy Jones & His Orchestra recording. Issued in 1961 for Impulse!, this is the sound of the modern, progressive big band at its pinnacle. Recorded in three sessions, the core of the band consists of Melba Liston, Phil Woods, Julius Watkins, and bassist Milt Hinton and pianist Patricia Brown on two sessions, with bassist Buddy Catlett and pianist Bobby Scott on another. The trumpet chairs are held alternately by players like Freddie Hubbard, Clark Terry, Thad Jones, and Snooky Young, to name a few. Oliver Nelson is here, as are Frank Wess and Curtis Fuller. Despite its brevity -- a scant 31 minutes -- The Quintessence is essential to any appreciation of Jones and his artistry. The deep swing and blues in his originals such as the title track, "Robot Portrait," and "For Lena and Lennie" create staggering blends. They are beautifully warm, with edges rounded, but the brass section is still taut and punchy. The reeds cool the heat enough to give the rhythmic dialogue in these tunes its inherent strolling swing. Elsewhere, on Thelonious Monk's "Straight, No Chaser," the time is speeded up to nearly dizzying intensity, and it's played like a big band popping bebop with incredible counterpointed double solos happening between trombone, muted trumpet, and Brown's piano. Though only 2:27 in length, the piece packs an entire harmonic universe into its furious pace. Benny Golson's "Little Karen," is, by contrast, held in character: lithe, limpid, and fluid, it's the ultimate laid-back, midtempo ballad. That said, with the brass charts being notched up just enough, it's got the kind of finger-popping groove that makes it irresistible. The solo spot taken by Nelson is pure knotty bop. What is beautiful about this recording -- and every second of the music -- is that because of its brevity, there isn't a wasted moment. It's all taut, packed with creativity and joy, and without excess or unnecessary decorative arrangement. It doesn't get much better than this.
AllMusic Review by Thom Jurek