DC Jazz Festival NEA Jazz Masters Concert
The District of Columbia is a land of institutions, so it makes sense that the city’s annual jazz fete is one that emphasizes the music’s history and presents the art form at its most coherent and formalist. The event—now billed as the DC Jazz Festival, formerly the Duke Ellington Jazz Festival—began on June 1 and continues through Sunday, and works as both a community-building exercise and a glossier showcase for traditional jazz virtues. Few events at the festival mingle with the past in a more candescent way than the annual NEA Jazz Masters concert, which on Thursday night was to pay tribute to saxophonist James Moody. It did this, sort of, mostly by default.
The 85-year-old NEA Master, revealed festival founder Charles Fishman, had recently undergone surgery and was advised by his doctors not to travel. But he was listening via a simulcast, and what Moody heard had less to do with him and more to do with his employer and collaborator of half a century, Dizzy Gillespie, and the modern jazz Diz innovated.
There were natty suits, bop standards, ballads, muted trumpet, pithy mid-solo quotations, Dizzy’s Afro-Cuban amalgams, a brief but potent vocal-jazz component, traded fours and spirited solos in rounds. Programs like this take a beating from serious-minded fans, but they can serve their purposes: To the uninitiated they provide a staid yet approachable overview of what the music has stood for, and if you happen to follow jazz closely, in all its demanding, unyielding sonic and theoretical progress, they can be relieving. (It says a lot about the forbidding quality of jazz’s cutting edge when bebop is mitigating.)
Of course, the program is only as good as its personnel, and that certainly wasn’t a problem here. As could be expected, most of the featured Moody associates worked with him via the vast fraternity surrounding Dizzy—whether they performed in the trumpeter’s band, in one of his posthumous repertory ensembles (such as the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars, billed here), or both. Cyrus Chestnut on piano demonstrated bop’s shatterproof connection to the blues; Roy Hargrove on trumpet and flugelhorn provided star power and acted as a somewhat diffident leader; bassist John Lee made his fretless electric instrument sound like an acoustic one; and drummer Willie Jones III anchored the ensemble with unaffected swing. Special guest Paquito D’Rivera accepted Moody’s DC Jazz Festival Lifetime Achievement Award with grace, blew impeccably toned alto and clarinet, and punctuated the lengthy show’s otherwise dry presentation with his usual sort of well-timed cracks. (It was D’Rivera who paid proper homage to the wit, warmth and hammy charisma Dizzy and Moody developed onstage; though, to his credit, Hargrove inspired some chuckles with his scatting at show’s end.)
Israeli guitarist Yotam Silberstein, a Moody discovery, was a focal point throughout and always made the most of his ample solo time. There was something refreshingly vintage about his playing—his tone cool and round, his phrasing steeped in the blues and always at the service of a narrative. Notwithstanding some finger-tapping, which, on his hollowbody, didn’t equate to much of anything, he worked in a mid-century style that has been sadly lost since the advent of fusion and the influence of postbop technicians like Kurt Rosenwinkel.
The set list would have sufficed for an undergrad-level listening exam: “Groovin’ High,” with Yotam and Hargrove as the frontline, was sprightly and superb, as was “Birk’s Works,” with Hargrove and D’Rivera at the helm. “’Round Midnight” evoked Gillespie but also Miles Davis and, unavoidably, the tune’s composer, Thelonious Monk.
There was perhaps as much Monk as there was Moody. One of two duets featuring violinist Regina Carter and pianist Kenny Barron was a sterling take on “Misterioso,” where Carter kept time with balletic pizzicato. (The other duet, “Georgia on My Mind,” showcased Carter’s great precision, emotional depth and spot-on intonation.) During the show’s first half, the core small group simmered on “Rhythm-A-Ning” while the tap-dancing Manzari brothers, currently performing at the Lincoln Theatre in Duke Ellington’s Sophisticated Ladies, spun and clattered.
Vocalist Roberta Gambarini joined the band to see the evening out, and offered an abiding “You Don’t Know What Love Is” as well as—you guessed it—“Moody’s Mood for Love.” Though she read the lyrics, Gambarini’s deliberate delivery and athletic way with language made the offering worthwhile. But one couldn’t help but imagine what improvised hilarity would have ensued had the man of the hour been in the house.