Where was Moody? That’s the mystery.
Actually, the physical whereabouts of James Moody, 85, were well-known, even though the saxophonist/flutist wasn’t present at the Lincoln Theatre last night for the NEA Jazz Masters’ tribute to him. “James recently had a surgical procedure done,” DCJF producer Charlie Fishman explained from the stage. “So unfortunately he couldn’t be with us tonight, but thanks to the efforts of WWOZ in New Orleans, who are broadcasting this concert, he is listening on the Internet.” But what was really missing, despite the excellence of what transpired instead, was all but the faintest signs of Moody’s musical legacy.
The lineup for the concert included two musicians who are unquestionably longtime friends and collaborators of Moody: piano great Kenny Barron, a cohort for 50 years, and clarinetist-saxophonist Paquito D’Rivera, who’s worked with him for more than 20. Most of the others—-pianist Cyrus Chestnut, guitarist Yotam Silberstein, bassist John Lee, drummer Willie Jones III, trumpeter Roy Hargrove, and vocalist Roberta Gambarini—-are far more recent and infrequent collaborators, primarily working with Moody in the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band. Another, violinist Regina Carter, has never recorded with Moody; her association is with Barron, whom she joined onstage for two duets.
The repertoire wasn’t much more relevant to Moody, either. No doubt he knows the bebop (“‘Round Midnight,” “Blue ‘N Boogie”) and Tin Pan Alley standards (“You Don’t Know What Love Is,” “Georgia On My Mind”) that made up most of the set last night, particularly since another frequent collaborator, Dizzy Gillespie, was very well-represented with three tunes. (Charlie Fishman first made his name in jazz as Gillespie’s last manager.) Surely, however, there are other standards that are more associated with Moody, who has done multiple versions of “Con Alma” and “Body and Soul,” among others. But Moody has also written his share of originals; many were developed improvisationally but became showpieces in their own right. Still, it wasn’t until the close of the show that the musicians performed a Moody tune—-his most famous, “Moody’s Mood for Love.”
The performances themselves are much harder to fault. Chestnut, in particular, played with a unique sparkle that informed the gospel and blues influences he brought to the fore in tunes like “Groovin’ High” and “Bebop.” Silberstein also deserves praise, with quicksilver slide work on “‘Round Midnight,” and Barron with his balance of light melody and percussive rhythm on “Georgia on My Mind.” There were also a couple of neat surprises, with the tapdancing Manzari Brothers joining the band for Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” and a lithe trio of D’Rivera, Siberstein, and Brazilian tambourine player Pernell Saturnino performing the bossa nova standard “Um A Zero.” (They decided to do the song during intermission, Fishman explained, requiring Silberstein to quickly learn it and Saturnino to be fetched on a whim from his hotel room.) Nobody who came to the concert with the simple desire for great jazz left disappointed.
Those who bought tickets hoping for a tribute to James Moody, however, may have been more befuddled. Perhaps if Moody had made the gig according to plan, there would have been some context for the roster and setlist. As it was, though, we were treated to a very good performance with confusing billing.