When his tenor saxophone hangs on his chest, James Moody is an entertainer. Years spent working with the best jazz cut-ups has taught him the value of lightening up an audience. So when Moody's on stage between songs, he's revving up his charm and drawing everyone in. But when it's time to work, a transformation takes place in his face. The jovial side disappears and is replaced by a very serious expression that can only be likened to a surgeon starting a procedure.
On Moody: 4A, his latest CD and 258th recording session, Moody, 84, is all surgeon and demonstrates why he's still doing what he does best. Only a handful of ironman tenor originators are still touring, including Moody, Sonny Rollins, Benny Golson, Jimmy Heath and Frank Wess. Through genetics, a spiritual calm, or maybe the embrace of humor, all of these greats remain highly productive artists some 60 years after they began. That's quite a feat when you think how physically tough touring and playing is, not to mention the constant demand for fresh ideas. Coasting isn't do-able at this level.
What makes Moody: 4A so special are the song choices and tempos. First, the song choices: Except for Voyage, a Kenny Barron [pictured] original from some years back, all the tunes are well-known standards that Moody has recorded before. The list is pure jazz songbook—Secret Love, 'Round Midnight, Without a Song, Stella by Starlight, East of the Sun, Stablemates and Bye Bye Blackbird. Yet Moody breathes fresh life into them all with his warm, woody tone and flawless phrasing.
As for the tempos, nearly all are taken at a walking pace, which to be honest was a stroke of production genius. This album is a smoke-ring session, and you really get to feel Moody's low notes and hear the high ones ring. Even Without a Song and Stablemates are taken at an easy canter and seem to be moving in slow motion, as if running under water.
The ottoman pace here has nothing to do with age. Moody could have stripped the paint off your walls with a bullwhip tempo if he had wanted to. But either Moody or someone at IPO Records wisely suggested keeping the lid on. The result is a different Moody recording. No tricks. No cute stuff. No movie music. No clowning. Just serious, seamless ideas and a bared soul. This is Moody singing through his horn, and each song hits you as if you're hearing them for the first time. It's amazing what happens when tempos are reigned in and a song's beauty speaks for itself.
The most remarkable track on this CD is East of the Sun. It features only Moody and pianist Kenny Barron, who is a legend in his own right. Taken at a pace close to Parker's Mood, Moody digs in deep here, channeling Sarah Vaughan's 1950 version for Columbia. What surfaces is one of the most beautiful instrumental versions I've heard in some time. You get to hear how well-rounded Moody's tone has become and how tasteful Barron continues to be. They're so good, in fact, that an entire album of Moody and Barron duos would be most welcome.
So what's up with the album title? No, it's not an apartment number. It refers to the four-member group—Moody, Barron, bassist Todd Coolman and drummer Lewis Nash. The letter in the title leaves plenty of room in the alphabet for 25 more recordings. From what I hear, Moody: 4B is already in the works.
JazzWax tracks: You'll find Moody: 4A (IPO Records) as a download at iTunes and Amazon. Or on CD here. Liner notes are by Ira Gitler, who also wrote the notes to Dizzy Gillespie: Showtime at the Spotlite (June 1946), a double CD set that also just happened to be Moody's first recording.
JazzWax clip: For more on Moody, dig this clip featuring Moody's wit and wisdom backed by snippets of his famed recordings...