Friday, November 20, 2015

Listening to Prestige part 152: James Moody

I had not known that James Moody was partially deaf--and that as a child, he was put in a school for retarded children because school administrators didn't believe he was deaf. Fortunately, his mother moved him to a different school district, and fortunately, he didn't let hearing loss stand in the way of his love for music, or his desire to play it. It also wasn't enough to keep him out of the Air Force, in which he served during World War II. The Air Force had a band, but it was whites only. Moody has spoken in a video interview of his experiences in the segregated Air Force.

He found the unauthorized "Negro Air Force Band" led by trumpeter Dave Burns, with whom he remained close, first in the postwar Dizzy Gillespie band and then in the septet he organized, which played these Prestige dates among others. Burns is heard to good effect in these two sessions.

I've written a lot about James Moody, first in relation to his Swedish sessions for Metronome/Prestige, then in these septet sessions in Hackensack at the Van Gelder studio, and I'm not sure I have much more to say, which is one of the reasons I've held off writing a blog entry for a couple of weeks--the other being that I've gotten caught up gathering my first five years' worth of entries into book form, and that's almost ready.

But I was struck by this quote from Jimmy Heath, about a somewhat older Moody:

Over the years, Moody has become so free--not in a random fashion, but a scientific freedom--that he can do anything he wants with the saxophone.... He has true knowledge. He is in complete control.
I think this is a great distinction...scientific freedom vs. random freedom. I remember hearing Steve
Allen introducing Miles Davis on his tv show, and saying that Miles was not, as your grandmother might say, "just blowin' a lot of notes." Steve's grandmother must have had a somewhat different vocabulary than mine did, but we'll pass over that. Steve went on to say that "every note has a precise musical meaning and, uh, you could prove it with mathematics if need be." Well, I suppose you could, although mathematics might not be the best proof. But for sure, there's freedom and there's freedom. The scientific freedom, the kind that you could prove with mathematics if you needed to, is the kind of freedom that allowed Shakespeare to probe every shading and subtlety of human emotion, within the confines of iambic pentameter. The geniuses of free jazz, like Coleman and Coltrane and Dolphy, found their own kind of scientific freedom, even though Allen's mother might have said they were just blowin' a lot of notes. But as for random freedom...

There's a story abut Buck Clayton playing a Jazzmobile concert in New York. A young guy hopped up on the stage next to him, said he'd like to jam with him. Clayton said OK, let's play a little blues in B-flat. He started playing, the kid started screeching and caterwauling, blowin' a bunch of notes all over the map, never mind the scale.

"What's that?" Clayton demanded.

"Man, I'm just playing what I feel."

"Well, feel something in B-flat, motherfucker."

In 1955, Moody is already a master of scientific freedom, and he and his septet of Gillespie alumni feel plenty, and they feel it all in the same key. Eddie Jefferson joins them again for one number -- "Disappointed" -- and he meshes brilliantly. He doesn't make it a band backing up a vocalist, he adds one more instrument to a brilliant ensemble.

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