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Nnenna Freelon and Friends Bring Joy to Yoshi’s, Moody’s B-Day Celebration

by Rip Empson

“We are very pleased to have a special guest in the audience tonight: former heavy weight champion of the world, Mr. Joe Frazier,” informal emcee Todd Coolman announced from behind his bass. As the audience scanned the room for a glimpse of Smokin’ Joe, the bassist didn’t miss a beat, quipping, “Oh, sorry lady, thought you were Joe...”

Coolman’s tongue-in-cheeker was characteristic of the light-hearted tone that prevailed at Yoshi’s last Saturday. The joke also happens to be a favorite of the great saxophonist James Moody, who’s 85th birthday we had gathered to celebrate.

Though the guest of honor was ill and unable to attend his own party, the night did not disappoint, as a host of talented musicians played on in tribute, including Frank Wess on sax and flute, Jon Faddis on trumpet, Joey DeFrancesco on the organ, drummer Adam Nussbaum, bassist Todd Coolman, vocalist Nnenna Freelon, and pianist Mike Garson.

Who’s James Moody, you ask? Well, my friends, James Moody has become something of a jazz institution – a qualifier generally reserved it seems for those who’ve blown their horns (or tickled a piano) for more than sixty years and came up under jazz wizards like Dizzy Gillespie. As it happens, fresh out of Air Force service in World War II, a young James Moody joined Dizzy Gillespie’s orchestra in 1946 – an all-star band that boasted some p-p-p-retty talented jazz hands, like vibraphonist Milt Jackson, drummer Kenny Clarke, bassist Ray Brown, the inimitable crazy-man Thelonious Monk, and arguably the most famous jazz name of them all … Miles Davis … to name a few.

Moody’s subsequent rise to fame is a cool – and kind of unusual – story. In 1949, while in Sweden on a mini-tour, Moody recorded Jimmy McHugh’s “I’m in the Mood for Love,” in which he played a distinctive, dynamic bop solo that made the recording a big hit back in the U.S. of A. (Moody moved to Europe after a few years in Dizzy’s band.) A few years later, Eddie Jefferson wrote a melody from Moody’s improvisation, set lyrics to it, and called it “Moody’s Mood For Love.” A singer with one of the great (and presumptuous) stage names in music history, King Pleasure, then made the song famous, and in so doing, secured Moody’s status among the great horn players of the era. “Moody’s Mood For Love” has since become a jazz classic and has been recorded by Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Amy Winehouse, and many others.

Moody’s story is illustrative of an era when things like that could happen, when a musician could rise to fame based on an improvised solo … a jazz one no less. Weird, huh? Add 60 years of touring and recording and you start to see why Moody’s birthdays have become special events in the jazz world -- causes for celebration both among musicians and his many friends.

In a fitting tribute Saturday, Moody’s friends played a raucous and light-hearted version of “I’m in the Mood For Love” that included a hilarious vocal performance by Joey DeFrancesco. If you’re not familiar with DeFrancesco, he is a big fella and is renowned for his virtuosic Hammond skills (when he was 17, Miles asked the organist to join his band) and relentless touring and guest appearances … but he’s not exactly known for his dulcet voice. Imagine Newman (from Seinfeld) with a goatee belting out a ‘40s jazz tune. No doubt Moody would have been proud. Or at least laughing his ass off. Happy Birthday, James!

Another of the night’s highlights was the performance of uber talented jazz vocalist Nneenna Freelon, who has toured extensively with Moody in the past few years. She opened by telling the audience that she knew “Moody was here in spirit” because, after all, “he’s a brother who always enjoys a good party.” Then, along with pianist Mike Garson (who played on Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust tour in 1972 and Aladdin Sane) Nnenna launched into celebratory renditions of “Squeeze Me” (and old Fats Waller tune) and “Blue Skies” (an Irving Berlin classic).

I’m not usually a fan of jazz vocalists, but Nnenna’s version of “Blue Skies” made me feel all funny inside – and want to join a congregation. It also helps that, though she’s in her mid-fifties and has 5-Grammy nominations and years of touring under her belt, she looks incredibly sexy in a black dress. I still think that most jazz vocalists are cheese dealers, but the traces of gospel in her tone, mixed with shades of pop and blues made her sound like Ella Fitzgerald, Judy Garland, and Beyonce rolled into one. Or at least that’s what someone who sings well (and knows who Beyonce is) told me …

Another reason that Nnenna’s performance was so enjoyable was how well her voice was complimented by the saxophone of Frank Wess. Prior to the show, I wasn’t particularly familiar with Wess, who, I’ve since learned (like Moody), is a sax veteran, debuting in the “Big Band” era with Bill Eckstine and Count Basie. Today, the National Endowment of the Arts identifies the 88-year-old as a “Jazz Master.” Not quite a doctor, I suppose, but master will do. Wess’s playing, especially on the standard “Never Let Me Go,” was brilliant.

Following this particularly hott (yes, that’s with two “t’s”) rendition in which Wess (who walked to his place on the stage with a cane) played the classiest, most tasteful, it-takes-a-guy-who’s-been-around-awhile-to-know solos I’ve seen, trumpeter Jon Faddis acknowledged his consummate playing by declaring: “Well … now I don’t have to go to church tomorrow…” So apparently Wess is a master and a minister. If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.

All in all, it was one helluva birthday party; Mr. Moody was celebrated in style. It left me hoping that my 85th birthday – really, any year – features a musical cake with some badass saxophone and a sexy jazz diva.

Rating: 12 out of a possible 13 bassoons.

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