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Moody's Mood at Blues Alley

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[We] departed, thankful for witnessing a musical legend expertly displaying his technical craft. But we were also touched, albeit for only ninety minutes, by the sheer exuberance of a gentleman feasting upon the joys of a life well lived and shared.
James Moody
Blues Alley
October 2005
Washington, DC

In an era where vapid commercial conglomerates seemingly dictate the aural pabulum streaming through monolithically controlled media that would prove Terry Gilliam's dreary and expressionistic worldview as accurate, intelligent and well performed music is always welcomed. If, however, one is extremely fortunate, a musician is emerges through the mist to convince the listener that being alive is a grand experience indeed. James Moody has been sent to us to apply his musical salve.

On a recent Friday evening, my wife and I crossed the threshold of Blues Alley in Georgetown, a narrow former carriage house from the eighteenth century, and entered the dark and cramped club space. Although I have been coming to Blues Alley for over twenty years, and associate some of my fondest musical memories with performances within the venue, the generally poor service, bad food and the apparent "move 'em in and git 'em out mentality of the management does little to create a sense of longing. But the opportunity to see James Moody in the intimate room is infrequent and promises to be a special occasion. As we claimed our circular table approximately the size of a hub cap ripped from a compact car, Moody was seen prior to the show, professionally preparing for the evening, arranging his instruments on the stage, and displaying a physical agility that certainly belies his eighty years. My anticipation grew.

Each time a major musical figure is brought to the club, I dread the possibility of a "pick up band assigned to accompany a briefly visiting jazz legend. Although many of the local musicians in the metropolitan area are excellent, the familiar interaction of acquainted musicians cannot be replicated during the course of a brief club appearance. I was thus pleasantly surprised to see Renee Rosnes on piano and Moody's long time bassist, Todd Coolman, gazing at the crowd from the stage. The performance possibilities were more promising.

It is somewhat ironic that a man who infuses any room with hope and joy would have visited the Overbrook facility in Cedar Grove, New Jersey to treat an overindulgence in alcohol. After his brief stay there in 1958, he released his landmark album the following year entitled Last Train From Overbrook. Moody began the first set of the evening with a brief performance of the work, illustrating his relief at leaving the hospital. The composition begins by the sound of a train seemingly departing the center, and the main theme confirms that the musical intention is one of safe satisfaction, rather than that of failed despair. Moody introduced his musical partners both before and after each tune, and was clearly pleased to share the stage with his musical compatriots. Each of the latter displayed the expected empathetic support instilled by years of musical conversations between professionals.

I always associate the bossa nova with Washington, DC. Legendary disc jockey Felix Grant, whom I was fortunate enough to know, was a maintain stay on the area airwaves for almost forty years, and was awarded Brazil's highest civilian medal, the Order of the Southern Cross, for his tireless promotion of the music. In addition, the monumental 1961 album "Jazz Samba , which introduced the country to the Brazilian craze, features two Washington residents '" Charlie Byrd and Keter Betts. Indeed, the record was recorded in Washington. Accordingly, Moody's performance on flute of Jobim's Wave was somewhat nostalgic; it displayed its lilting romanticism simply, convincingly and effortlessly.

James Moody's 1949 recording of "I'm in the Mood for Love , during his sojourn in Sweden, became a bit of a hit. But when vocalist Eddie Jefferson rewrote the lyrics in 1952 and released the tune as "Moody's Mood for Love it became even more popular. King Pleasure's version was still more popular. The inevitable result was Moody's 1956 recording for Chess "Moody's Mood for Love . In short, the composition is a classic and has become a staple of many of Moody's contemporary performances. It was indeed welcome, and I had the sense of witnessing just a bit of jazz history before me.

It was certainly expected when the chords of "Pennies from Heaven emanated from the piano. Of course, anyone familiar with Moody's repertoire also expects any of his performances to include the parody which tells the story of a man who returns home after a three year absence to find his wife pregnant. The spouse explains the mysterious appearance of the child by stating "Benny's from Heaven and the returning husband concludes "Well, then Benny's from heaven 'cause he damn sure ain't from me!" Although seemingly a disturbing topic, Moody is able to make anyone view the humor in almost any situation.


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