The Jazz.com Blog
February 03, 2008 · 1 comment
If you can’t get the whole country to come to the Monterey Jazz Festival, have the MJF go out to the whole country. With that philosophy in mind, the folks on the dream coast have launched a road edition of a festival all-star band, and sent them packing for a 54-city tour.
That’s right, 54 cities.
Maybe you’re not impressed. You’re telling me that Mike Huckabee visited 196 towns in Iowa on a single weekend – so why get so jazzed about 54 appearances by six musicians? But in the fragile world of jazz concert tours, this is a big deal. Today, when jazz acts announce a “nationwide” tour, they usually mean a quick visit to four or five concert halls on the coasts and a wave from their first class airline seats for the “flyover states.” In contrast, this little band with the long name – they are known as (pause for breath) The Monterey Jazz Festival Fiftieth Anniversary All-Stars -- are serious about bringing their music to the heartland, and their brutal itinerary harks back to the good old days, when the leading bands racked up more miles than a driver on the NASCAR circuit.
"You may be city number 18 on our tour,” singer Nnenna Freelon told the audience at Dallas’s McFarlin Auditorum on Friday, “but you are first in our hearts.” Is this just a line you tell all the fellas, Nnenna? But the event was certainly special for drummer Kendrick Scott, a Houston native, whose parents were in the audience, as was the esteemed Dr. Robert (Bob) Morgan, who had been Scott's teacher at Houston's High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. And even Freelon had a contingent of old friends from Texarkana who had journeyed to the concert. Stop number 18 can feel like homecoming if there are enough familiar faces around.
Not every musician is game for such a long and winding road-trip. But I am especially impressed that James Moody, now 82 years old, signed on for the tour. Moody first played the Monterey Jazz Festival some 47 years ago – which is before any of the other instrumentalists in this band were born. Of course, Moody doesn’t look his age, certainly doesn't act it, and his playing shows no signs of excess mileage. Perhaps he was right in crediting his younger bandmates – who also include trumpeter Terence Blanchard, pianist Benny Green and bassist Derrick Hodge – for keeping him feeling robust.
Moody is so skilled as an entertainer that it is easy to forget just how fine a saxophonist he is. He has a great harmonic mind and I have a hunch that he practiced like a demon for many, many years. As a result, his playing is full of those little twists, clever ways of working the changes, that probably most of the audience can’t even hear, but get the musicians nodding with assent. If he didn’t have such charismatic stage presence, Moody would risk becoming another one of those unsung tenor heroes born in the 1920s and 1930s – I am thinking of saxophonists such as George Coleman, Johnny Griffin, the late Warne Marsh – who sometimes seem to be playing to impress the other hornplayers rather than for the world at large.
But Moody knows that only a few people in the audience came to hear his smart licks, while they all expect to be entertained. On various occasions, I have heard him hold a crowd in the palm of his hand just with his rambling monologues and funny repartee. Perhaps he learned this from Dizzy during all their years of working together. Gillespie also understood that audiences didn’t give hoot whether you improvise with the higher intervals of chord, as long as they have a jolly good time. And if you manage to win the hearts of those who pay their hard-earned cash for the tickets, they will give you leeway to push the music as far as you want. At McFarlin, Moody followed this playbook; he intermixed jokes and gags and funny vocals (the old “Benny’s from Heaven” makeover of “Pennies from Heaven”) with some killin’ sax solos. He even entered into a vocal duet with Freelon on “Squeeze Me,” and though it fell short of their excellent recent recording of this same number, it still worked some magic with the audience.
Freelon is an intriguing vocalist, who constantly vacillates between phrasing like a jazz singer and like a soul singer. She does both well. Her intonation is outstanding, and it is clear that she can sing anything she hears, and she can hear almost anything. When she exchanged scat phrases with Moody, she sounded so much like Ella it was almost uncanny. In an introspective duet with bassist Hodge on “Skylark” – the highlight of the concert, in my opinion – she spiced her jazz lines with a double dose of Motown, and the result was quite charming. As an extra bonus, the extravagant hand gestures Freelon uses while she sings (or even listens to the other players) are better than anything you will see short of a Bharata Natyam dance performance. Yet her various techniques do not always cohere, and it may ultimately be the case that her very strength – her ability to imitate almost every idiom with ease – will prevent her from ever developing a more holistic and personal style.
Blanchard was also a strong presence on the bandstand. He has become so successful as a composer – Blanchard now has more than 40 film scores to his credit – that he doesn’t always rank as high on the Down Beat polls and other popularity contests as his talent might warrant. Blanchard’s big, brassy tone is a throwback to the Brownie-Navarro school, and he reminds us that playing hot doesn’t always mean playing sloppy - a lesson many younger trumpeters still need to learn. Even when playing forcefully, his lines are warm and rounded. It is no surprise that he writes so well for movies, since his ability to balance high energy and great control are always rarities in the jazz world, and make for narrative drama in a solo or a soundtrack. Two pieces from Blanchard's Grammy nominated A Tale of God's Will (A Requiem for Katrina) served as centerpieces for the second half of the concert.
Pianist Benny Green acted as informal emcee and musical director for the All-Stars, and he often put his own playing in the background in order to cast attention on his bandmates. His attitude was unassuming, his piano under-miked, and he worked hard at the keyboard to create contrasts and shifts in texture that made everyone sound better. He stretched out at length on just one number, Clare Fischer’s lovely “Pensativa,” perhaps the finest bossa number ever penned by a non-Brazilian. Here Green reminded us that he is an excellent soloist in his own right, and able to shine amidst this all-star ensemble.
The success of the McFarlin Auditorium concert, presented by TITAS, suggests that the other tour stops will be worth checking out. The remaining concert dates for the Monterey Jazz Festival 50th Anniversary All-Stars can be found here.
This blog entry posted by Ted Gioia