By: George Varga
Anybody who thinks you can’t teach an old master new tricks clearly needs to catch up with James Moody.
The jazz saxophone legend, who turned 85 on March 26 and performs June 23 in New York’s Carnegie Hall, has been spending much of his spare time relearning the flute, thanks to a tip from flutist Holly Hofmann. Never mind that, in 1956, Moody recorded the acclaimed album “Flute ‘N the Blues” or that he has since played the instrument with much of the same skill and distinction he’s brought to the tenor, alto and soprano saxophones.
“I was sick of (the flute), so I just played saxophone,” said Moody.
He changed his mind after Hofmann made a suggestion about his embouchure and the position of his right elbow when he played his flute.
“Most musicians who have been around as long as Moody rarely change the way they play,” she said. “But it’s typical of Moody that he did change, because he’s always practicing, working on things so intently and evolving as a player. He has shown me some wonderful patterns that I’ve incorporated into my playing, which I would have never discovered on my own.”
Her admiration for Moody’s talent and his tireless work ethic are shared by other prominent musicians, including Pulitzer Prize-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, the artistic director of New York’s Jazz at Lincoln Center.
“He’s about the music — all the time,” Marsalis said. “I’ve worked with Moody a lot and he’s just impeccable, his musicianship, his soul, his humor. He’s a titan of our music and I love him.”
When Moody belatedly celebrates his birthday June 23 with a long sold-out gala concert at Carnegie Hall, he anticipates playing at least one number on flute. He now practices the flute at least five days a week while watching such TV news and opinion shows as “Countdown With Keith Obermann,” “The Rachel Maddow Show” and “Anderson Cooper 360.”
“I can’t do that,” Hofmann said with a laugh. “I watch the same TV shows, but I have to concentrate too hard when I’m practicing.”
Moody’s ability to multitask comes as no surprise to his wife, Linda, of 21 years, who accompanied him when he received a Kennedy Center Living Jazz Legend Award in 2007 and was also on hand for his three White House performances.
“What’s interesting is that he can play the flute and hear the shows on TV at the same time,” Linda Moody said. “He practices the whole two or three hours he’s watching the shows.”
Moody (as his friends and fans call him) being Moody, he devotes even more time to the saxophone, a higher volume instrument he also practices daily, sans TV.
“It’s altogether different,” he said. “The flute is softer, and the more control you learn when you play it, the more you learn that silence really is golden. It will take me time to ‘unlearn’ all of those mistakes I used to make on the flute.
“With any instrument, you never get it all. But you try to get as much as you can. That’s why music is infinite. When I say it’s good to always practice, it doesn’t mean playing something you know. You practice what you don’t know. The point is, you have to find out what you don’t know.”
Moody’s unflagging devotion to his craft dates back to 1946, when he was just 21. It was then that he became a member of trumpet icon Dizzy Gillespie’s all-star big band and of the Bebop Boys, a small ensemble led by bassist Ray Brown that also featured Gillespie and vibraphonist Milt Jackson. He recorded his first solo album, “James Moody and His Bebop Men,” in 1947.
His friendship and musical relationship with Gillespie continued, off and on, until the trumpeter’s death in 1993. When Moody married Linda in 1989 at Faith Chapel in Spring Valley, Calif., Gillespie was the best man.
“The first time I played Carnegie Hall was with Dizzy and Ella Fitzgerald, around 1947,” recalled Moody, who in 1998 was honored as a Jazz Master by the National Endowment for the Arts.
“I’ve also played there with Tito Puente, Jon Faddis and the Carnegie Hall Jazz Orchestra, and at a special jazz concert that Clint Eastwood organized.”
In addition, Moody performed at Carnegie Hall in late 1992 as a stand-in for the then-ailing Gillespie. The occasion was the Baha’i World Congress, an event the bespectacled saxophonist describes as if it took place only last week.
“I remember looking out from the stage at the audience, and thinking: ‘Now, this is the way everything should look,'” said Moody, who is not a member of the Baha’i faith. “There were people from all over the world attending, and everyone was there in peace and harmony.”
It was his quest for peace, harmony and a society not marred by racism that took Moody to Europe for several years in the late 1940s.
During a 1949 visit to Stockholm, he recorded his landmark version of “I’m in the Mood for Love,” backed by a Swedish band. It featured what remains one of the most heralded sax solos in jazz history. His solo in turn inspired a vocal version by jazz singer Eddie Jefferson in 1952, who retitled the song “Moody’s Mood for Love,” followed by singer King Pleasure’s hit pop version in 1954.
Over the years, it has also been recorded by such varied artists as Aretha Franklin, Van Morrison, Queen Latifah, George Benson, Amy Winehouse, Smokey Robinson, Rod Stewart and “American Idol” contestant Elliott Yamin. Hailed by longtime friend Bill Cosby as “a national anthem,” “Moody’s Mood for Love” received a Grammy Hall of Fame Award in 2001 for “its lasting qualitative and historical significance.”
“I don’t pay any attention to that stuff,” Moody said. “When I made that record, I was a tenor saxophonist playing alto for the first time on record and I was trying to find the right notes, to be truthful. People later said to me ‘You must have been very inspired when you recorded that.’ And I said ‘Yeah I was inspired to find the right notes!'”
Moody performs his trademark song each time he’s on stage, yet always adds new twists to keep it fresh for him and his listeners.
But instead of resting on his formidable laurels, he keeps pushing forward. Witness his two most recent albums for IPO Records, last year’s understated “4A” and 2008’s sublime “Our Delight” (which paired him with esteemed pianist Hank Jones for the first time on an album since 1963).
Next up, Moody predicts, will be an album featuring his rejuvenated flute playing in an orchestral setting. In addition to his upcoming Carnegie Hall birthday concert, his touring schedule this year includes dates across North America and Europe, as well as a headlining appearance in December at the Penang Jazz Festival in Malaysia.
“I used to be young and dumb,” Moody said. “Now, I’m a little older and a little wiser.”
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