How often does an album win seven grammy awards, (Best album of 1990 - the quintessential award for a record producer, Best Engineering for an album for 1990, and five "song" or individual cut awards)? Well Quincy Jones made the tough stuff look easy on 1989's Back on the Block. One can only pull off accolades like these if : A) you're the most in-demand pop record producer in America, and you have friends like Ray Charles, Ella Fitzgerald, James Moody, George Benson, Barry White, Kool Moe Dee, Big Daddy Kane, Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Herbie Hancock, Chaka Khan, and many more stellar performers on the album, and B) you're hip to the exact musical selections that make for a fabulous party album that crosses over into the realm of a "mood" album.

Why should this writer review, in the year 2008, an album rolled out 18 years before? How could the concept of an album which mixes Rap, R&B, pop and soul possibly go Gold? Is it cryogenics or some other sort of magic that keeps this album fresh in a time when music buyers are fickle at best; when poor-fidelity downloads are looming on the horizon to surpass CD sales?

The answer can be distilled down to five words: Quincy Jones's Back on the Block. Jones's long-awaited opus smashed conventional wisdom about the creation of R&B records (actually, we call the genre "Urban Contemporary" now). And then two words: BUY IT!

Quincy Jones made his debut on his own label with his most extravagant, most star-studded, most brilliantly sequenced pop album to date...

— Richard S. Grinell,

Quincy Jones cut the final album required by his contract with the A&M label and proceeded to create his own label, while all the time working at a feverish pace scoring, arranging and producing music for albums, movies and television. The cover art, a montage of photos of Jones, is appropriate for the creation which probably sent A&R (Artists and Repertoire) executives at A&M to the nearest bar to drown their sorrows for a long, long time. Suffice it to say that this creation was like nothing he'd produced for a label other than his own.

Not since Peggy Lee's "concept" album Black Coffee or Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon has a "concept" album, (telling a story or naturally progressing moods and concepts from one another), been such a hit. Sinatra almost upstaged Lee's brilliant opus with Nice 'N Easy, Songs for Swingin' Lovers, and Come Fly With Me, but it was Jones that created an album which exceeded the benchmark limits of the concept album ("get into the mood; get the girl in the mood; make love to the girl; chill out with the girl") [kindly excuse the writer for being so sexist, won't you?]

Jones is not your average music mogul, as is evidenced by the star-studded roster of credits (imagine using Luther Vandross simply for background vocals?!)


Back on The Block
Producer: Quincy Jones
Label: Qwest
Genre: Jazz/R&B
Release date: 1989 (Compact disc only; still available in major markets and on the internet)

Credits (selected, in alphabetical order):

Gerald Albright Sax (Alto), Vocals, Soloist
George Benson Guitar, Vocals, Soloist
Big Daddy Kane Vocals, Rap
Jorge Calandrelli Synthesizer String Arrangement (he is one of Tony Bennett's producers/arrangers)
Ray Charles Vocals
Miles Davis Trumpet, Vocals, Soloist
El DeBarge Vocals (bckgr), Soloist
George Duke Keyboards, Fender Rhodes, Soloist
Ella Fitzgerald Vocals, Soloist
Dizzy Gillespie Trumpet, Soloist
Grandmaster Melle Mel Rap
Herbie Hancock Keyboards, Soloist, Synthesizer Pads
Jennifer Holliday Vocals (bckgr)
Ice-T Rap
James Ingram Vocals (bckgr), Soloist
Jesse Jackson Narrator
Al Jarreau Vocals

QUINCY JONES:  Arranger, Drums, Programming, Vocals, Handclapping, Producer, Drums (Snare), Clapping, Shaker, Cowbell, Vocal Arrangement, Drum Programming, Rhythm Arrangements, Original Concept, Choir Conductor, Korg M1

Chaka Khan Vocals
Kool Moe Dee Vocals, Rap
Bobby McFerrin Bass, Percussion, Vocals, Yodeling
James Moody Saxophone, Sax (Alto), Soloist
Brad Sundberg Engineer, Technical Director (Grammy Award Winner: Best Engineering/non-Classical, 1990)
Luther Vandross Vocals (bckgr)
Sarah Vaughan Vocals, Soloist
Dionne Warwick Vocals (bckgr)
Barry White Soloist

Review/Track List:'s hard not to be moved by the likes of Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, James Moody, Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Zawinul, Sarah Vaughan, and George Benson electronically appearing on "Birdland" and trading brief licks with the likes of Kool Moe Dee and Big Daddy Kane on "Jazz Corner of the World." Later, jazz buffs would vilify Jones for not taking fuller advantage of this one-time constellation of jazz stars, but at the time, it seemed like a marvelous dialogue between the old and the new. Of course, as he well knew, celebrating jazz history is not the surest route to a blockbuster hit record, so there are plenty of radio-friendly urban pop productions here...

— Richard S. Grinell,

And the "radio-friendly, urbam pop productions," while they ain't as bad as reviewer Grinell would lead one to believe, indeed, create a bit of confusion when one's trying to pigeonhole this album into a genre. The music press did it; as did the infamous Nielsen folks.

Well, first of all, Jones needed to come out with a project that would propel his own label, Qwest, into the musical stratosphere. And rocket up the charts it did. More importantly, it earned record of the year from his peers, at the Grammy awards.

This record indeed doesn't know whether it's pop or jazz. The cool thing is that lovers of both genres can be pleased by the music not in their genre if only for the genius of the players, arrangement and stylization of each selection.

If You're a Fan of Pop Get It Anyway...

The album purposely starts with a rap from Jones himself. It appears to be both an apology for not coming out with the chart-topping music he'd been famous for, but also, an assertion that (despite his success with arranging music for the big and small screens), he was determined to continue to make records. It's kinda like saying "look at all my peeps, they're here with me and I'm gonna be here a long time." Now, one must remember that for the mass market, 1989 was considered the infancy of the "rap" genre. Jones then hands the rap over to a cadre of some of the finest rappers of the time, for the musically robust statement "Back on the Block."

The first piece of pop "cheese," "I Don't Go For That" is, at best, danceable, but dismissable as one of the nags on this album of thoroughbred jams.

One is then relieved to hear the song made popular by The Brothers Johnson, "I'll Be Good To You," executed in fine form by none other than Ray Charles and Chaka Khan. This co-mingling of the classic sound of Charles and the up-to-the-minute brashness of Khan is worth buying the album for. Notable is the fact that long after "Master Card" had become "Master Charge," Charles, while improvising, begs Khan to "empty his pockets" and includes his "Master Card" as one of the items in trade for her affections. (Are you getting the idea by now that the writer of this article knows this album inside and out, upside down and every other way?!)

Jones then presents us with a lovely a capella party by his own, personally-selected "Human Bean Band" called "We be Doonit." This celebration of Ebonics was quite trend-setting, yet palatable to those who would care to have their music, in today's terms, a bit less "urban." Only a genius like Jones could make this kind of very ethnic music palatable across the borders of genre. The Band then goes into a very danceable "We Be Doonit." Sadly, this lovely piece in multi-part harmony is followed by an intentionally commercially viable tune "The Places You Find Love."

This Is Why You Must Buy This Album if You're a Jazz Fan.

Big Daddy Kane and some fabulous recordings of jazz masters, including Miles Davis, speaking about jazz, comprise the introduction to the single reason the jazz lover would purchase this album: "(Introduction to Birdland)" and "Birdland," the famous anthem of the club of the same name in New York City. Exploiting technology, Jones adds none other than the Queen, Ella Fitzgerald, in one of her last recordings, to the tune. She scats like only Ella can. It was Sarah Vaughan's last recording. The tune concludes with a clip of the famous emcee of the original Stork Club and later Birdland, A high-quality recording of "Pee-Wee" Marquette, blended over vintage applause adds to the excitement. For a lover of the heyday of black jazz artists, the entirety of the five and a half minute concatenation of jazz greats is overwhelming, and, again, well worth the purchase price of the record for that tune alone. (NOTE: the writer doesn't endorse downloads from the internet because of the lack of fidelity).

Once laughing and delighting in the pure concentration of jazz history, Jones lays on us "Septembro (Brazilian Wedding Song)"

Then when the Cotton Club-esque shindig ends, we must endure yet another danceable mainstream Urban (spell "R" and "B" meets pop) tune, "One Man Woman," another throwaway piece of pop schmaltz in the same format as Jonse's ultra-Platinum garnering work with Michael Jackson, but not quite up to par. Then, God bless him, a chorus of children comes out of nowhere (certainly diluting the chemical properties of "One Man Woman") with "Tomorrow (A Better You, Better Me). "Tomorrow" sadly is bound to give pause to all who're romantically entwined but for, for lack of better words, those who have a photograph of Martin Luther King, Jr. on their bedroom walls.

The Sweet Spot

Then, Sassy gives us a fabulous moan/scat in "Prelude to the Garden" and Barry White stars in "The Secret Garden (Sweet Seduction Suite)". White lends his inimitable voice to a love song that, although punctuated by voices that evoke Michael Jackson, and a chorus that's just not necessary, White still has the capability to vocally "charm a cat off of a fish-wagon." Let's get the bad outta the way now. By 1989, people were *not* buying singles, so this romantic coupling couldn't be had unless one bought the whole album. Nowadays, if the listener will agree to diminished fidelity, the two songs can be downloaded from I-Tunes or a similar internet outlet. The problem is that when one is dealing with an album which won a Grammy for engineering, it's a pity to fall prey to lo-fidelity MP3 or ITunes downloads, which because of their compression won't give one the audio thrill that's had by playing the album through either good headphones, or better, at high volume with a respectable hi-fidelity stereo system. (If only for the late, great Barry White's murmerings on "The Secret Garden," it's best to buy the album - probably now available at a discount because the release date is so old; 1989. I'd hazard a guess that American buyers would be charged $11.95 or less for this essential to any jazz (or R&B) collector's accumulations.

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