It’s really funny to think that the idea of jumping onto the next big thing in music happened many generations before I was born. If latching onto dubstep for sales seems controversial for an American pop star now, then take a moment to go to the sixties when Brazilian bossa nova was royally swiped and repackaged for Yankee audiences by guys who were so smart that they could take the original and make it sound better. The one guy who did this really well was Quincy Jones. You may have heard of him. He plays, arranges, produces, conducts and composes and has worked with pretty every important artists of the last fifty years, which would explain why he’s won nearly thirty Grammys. At the same age as the amount of Grammy nominations he’s received (79), Jones has outlived his good friend (Ray Charles) and his biggest star (Michael Jackson), for whom he produced Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad. One of his daughters is Rashida Jones, who you might know as that outrageous babe from Parks & Recreation. But before all of that happened, the professional trumpeter and director for Dizzy Gillespie’s band – seriously, this man is so prodigious he makes you want to hang up your boots and quit before you’ve even started – was touring the nation and heard the sounds of bossa rolling from South America. Dudes like José Feliciano, and Antonio Carlos Jobim. It was new, it was strange, and it was going to be freaking huge. College kids were already all over it. In short, samba was the dubstep of the jazz world in the 1960s, and there was no way the first black Mercury Records executive was going to miss out on that one. So he called in a crack team of session players from his rolodex and made his own version that just so happened to become even more popular.
If you’ve read this far and wondered why I’m talking about a song from 1962 that there’s no chance you’ve ever heard, let’s just get that one out of the way. This is the theme song from Austin Powers. Which means that if you were ten, twenty or thirty in the late nineties, or the parent of one of those people, you’ve heard it. If you’re a rap aficionado, you’ve heard it turned on its head for Ludacris’ excellent ‘Number One Spot’. Woody Allen and Glee have both mined it. It is possibly one of (if not the most) the most recognised bossa nova pieces in the world outside of ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ in the world and it has no words in it. What is does have is a flute. A suite of flutes. A crazy-good flautist, who makes Will Ferrell, heir to Mike Meyers in the stupidity stakes and also a dedicated jazz flute player in Anchorman seem totally unimpressive. That guy’s name, for your reference, is Rahsaan Roland Kirk and that is a true fact because somebody told me his name on a plane when they saw I was listening to this song. Kirk was as much a rockstar as Jones in the sixties. He could play loads of instruments, often at the same time, and got seriously loose on stage, breaking into rhyme before rap was even a thing and wielding one of his many home-made instruments – and the guy was blind. He was such a strong personality that he rarely played in any bands that weren’t his own, which means his turn on ‘Soul Bossa Nova’ was historical in more ways than one, because it shows that two giant egos can actually get into the same room and create something bigger than themselves. There’s little doubt that outside the main melody, Kirk took a lot of poetic license with the sound in the studio. And fair enough, because it sounds goddamn amazing, right? It practically makes the song.
‘Soul Bossa Nova’ is a phenomenal piece of arranging. It’s fifty-something years old and every time I turn it on the horns, particularly the trombones and euphoniums, pour out of the bottom end while the flutes tweet from above and the trumpets blast out the middle range. Way before technology had caught up with him and he was recasting the rules of sonics on songs like ‘Wanna Be Startin’ Something’, Jones was filling speakers was ear candy that left most of his competitors choking on his dust. A song with such onomatopoeic potential only comes around once or twice in every generation – think the legions of football fans who now articulate the guitar line of ‘Seven Nation Army’ at every given opportunity. It expounded on core material that was already hot and turned it into something blistering. Brazil always did it more authentically, but for the full-fat, all-sugar version, there’s still no better place to look than MJ’s right hand man.
Quincy Jones – ‘Soul Bossa Nova’