Volume III, Issue III Autumn 2004

Keeping the music fun
James Moody a throwback to jazz's less-uptight days

This article originally published in The Orange County Weekly

James MoodyHey, remember when jazz was fun?

Okay, me neither.

But that's 'cause I wasn't born yet, in the days before jazz had largely become a high-falutin, "eat-your-peas" phenomenon; a scrotum-pinching, 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 NAASCAR 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 to make it fun, in those golden years prior to the onset of Infectious Wynton-itis. After more than a half-century as one of the music's most enchanting practitioners of tenor, alto and flute, Moody has never forgotten that great music should function as a celebration of the soul, even in its most technically challenging forms.

An early associate of Dizzy Gillespie, Moody shared with the beret-and-goateed icon a horn-rimmed hipster'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.

Moody is perhaps best remembered as the playa whose work was the catalyst for the vocalese movement in jazz, whereby existing instrumental solos had lyrics grafted upon them, to be re-created by human voice. Moody worked closely with vocalese originator Eddie Jefferson in the late '40s, 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).

Homage Vocalese-cred and historical props aside, Moody remains a superb musician, as evidenced by his recent release, "Homage." His warm, Prez-influenced tenor work is a pure delight, particularly on ballads, where he's able to impart a pleasantly sentimental ambiance without crossing over into the maudlin. Conversely, Moody's alto work, rife with energy and 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.

If one could have done without "Love Was the Cause of All Good Things," a preposterous hip hop experiment, well, credit the amiable ol' gent for having the sand to wade into new waters at age 79 rather than resting on his daunting laurels.

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