Hey, remember when jazz was fun?
Me, neither. But that's because I wasn't yet born in the days before jazz had largely become a highfalutin', eat-your-peas phenomenon, an anus-clenching genus of intellectual blackmail, replete with the thinly veiled implication that those who don't appreciate its mathematical wonders are automatically consigned to a lifetime of NASCAR fandom, Republican voting, Mel Gibson worship and neglect of oral hygiene.
Which brings us to James Moody, who was there when jazz was fun, who helped make it fun in those golden years before the onset of Infectious Wynton-itis. After more than half a century as one of the music's most enchanting practitioners of tenor, alto and flute, Moody has never forgotten that great music, even in its most technically challenging forms, should celebrate the soul.
An early associate of Dizzy Gillespie, Moody shared Gillespie's twinkle-eyed sense of musical mischief, merriment and enthusiasm. Hey, the guy signs his autograph complete with a cute li'l self-caricature—if he hadn't turned out to be a jazz mensch, Moody might have been Ernie Kovacs or sumpin', such is his amusing, gregarious persona.
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Instead, he is perhaps best remembered as the playa whose work was the catalyst for the vocalese movement in jazz, whereby musicians used voice and lyrics to re-create instrumentals. He worked closely in the early '50s with vocalese originator Eddie Jefferson, who added words to Moody's lovely improv on the standard "I'm in the Mood for Love," which then became "Moody's Mood for Love" and went on to be the best-known vocalese tune in all of jazz, particularly in its 1952 hit version, as performed by the great King Pleasure (the real King Pleasure, not the fat-assed British neo-swing turd who brazenly stole the great man's name and whose biggest claim to fame is serial appearances on The Teletubbies; no, I'm not making this shit up).
Vocalese cred and historical props aside, Moody remains a superb musician, as evidenced by his recent release, Homage. His warm, Lester Young-influenced tenor work is a pure delight, particularly on ballads, where he imparts a pleasant sentimentality without crossing over into the maudlin. Conversely, Moody's energetic alto work, alive with harmonic bop interplay, has always been clearly Bird-influenced, making him that rare connoisseur/purveyor of two decidedly disparate schools of improv on two different horns.
We could have done without "Love Was the Cause of All Good Things," a preposterous hip-hop experiment, but credit the amiable gent for wading into new waters at age 79, rather than resting on his discography. James Moody is all about having a swell time; party down with him Saturday night.
James Moody performs with the saddleback big band at the McKinney Theatre, Saddleback College, 28000 Marguerite PkwY., Mission Viejo, (949) 582-4656. sat., 8 p.m. $15-$20. All ages.