A big hand for jazz

Here’s a half-dozen highlights of NJPAC’s seventh annual TD James Moody Jazz Festival.


Linda Moody, married to Newark saxophone great James Moody for 22 years before his death in 2010, was remembering an anecdote he once told her.


“He was a little boy with his mother, walking down Broad Street. He said to her, ‘Someday I will go to the end of this street.’ I think that metaphorically speaking, he has gone to the end of that street.”


Broad Street’s northern end is where the TD James Moody Jazz Festival has resided at NJPAC for seven years now. Linda Moody is among the jazz royals you’ll find mingling with old friends and meeting new; appearing onstage with their music heroes in front of eager audiences; and interacting with jazz’s next generation in the Center for Arts Education.


NJPAC President and CEO John Schreiber and TD Bank Market President Martin Milleli opened the proceedings on November 8 with the “very exciting news” that TD had renewed its contract to sponsor the TD James Moody Jazz Festival for another three years.


“You’re going to get all the lovely jazz you could possibly want!” Milleli said, to cheers from an audience primed to swing the night away.


More than two dozen concerts and events comprised this year’s festival. We take a closer look at six very different performances.   


Dianne Reeves/Gregory Porter


One of the first big events of the festival was a concert on November 8 featuring Dianne Reeves and Gregory Porter. Reeves opened the November 8 show with a 10-minute improvisation about her flight to Newark.


“So I called my travel agent and I put her on blast/ Said girl, you know where I got to go, got to get there fast …” Reeves crooned.


She went on to sing a composition by Newarker Wayne Shorter, and a tune by Roy Hargrove, who passed away the day before he was to headline a Moody festival concert at Bethany Baptist Church. (“I was listening to him on the radio the other day when I realized: I can’t drive and listen to Roy at the same time. I have to hear everything he has to say.”) Another long riff recapped the mid-term elections in song, before Reeves signed off singing a kind of jazz benediction to the audience:


“Stay lifted, because kindness feels so good! Pick your battles, and stay in your right mind,” she sang.


Reeves was followed by “one of the baddest, meanest, smoothest soul brothers in the world today,” according to the evening’s host, bassist and NJPAC Jazz Advisor Christian McBride: Gregory Porter. The singer/songwriter, wearing his signature cap-topped balaclava, emerged from a cloud of smoke and launched into his own tune, “On My Way to Harlem,” which name-checks his musical and lyrical heroes, from Nat King Cole to Marvin Gaye and Langston Hughes.


He quieted down into the title song of one of his recent albums, “Take Me to the Alley,” a mournful imagining of the Second Coming – and then picked up into a rollicking take on his “Don’t Lose Your Steam” which, he explained, was a song he wrote for his son, a tune he hoped would encourage him the same way Nat King Cole’s “Pick Yourself Up” had bolstered Porter himself when he was young and fatherless.


Late in the set, Porter dipped into American Songbook classics, delivering a sweet and mournful take on “Nature Boy,” which might have been written expressly for his deep, rich, velvety baritone.


And the audience clearly wanted more. “Listen, ya’ll, I’ve had about 150 requests on Facebook!” Porter laughed as he finally made an exit despite audience pleas for another encore. “I just don’t have time to do every song I’ve ever sung!”


Antonio Sánchez: Birdman Live


“My closest friends have always been drummers,” confessed Christian McBride as he introduced Antonio Sánchez from the Victoria Theater stage on November 8.


The two musicians had become pals while touring with Pat Metheny and were reunited at the TD James Moody Jazz Festival, where Sánchez was performing his GRAMMY-winning, percussive score to Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) as it unreeled on the wide screen.


“When you think of great films with great music, you think of Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark, Spartacus … now you’ll think of this,” McBride added.


Sánchez opened by enthusing about his work on the 2014 movie – a four-time Oscar winner starring Michael Keaton – which began with a fortuitous encounter with director Alejandro González Iñárritu at a party. As a child growing up in Mexico City, he listened to both the Pat Metheny Group and Iñárritu on WFM radio and registers astonishment that they all one day became collaborators.


The audience got an up-close look and listen to Sánchez’s improvisatory style on the drums as he accompanied the dark comedy, then extended the closing credits with a mesmerizing coda that brought everyone, loudly applauding, to their feet.


Congas y Canto: An Evening of Latin Jazz


As if having Christian McBride’s 17-piece big band and assorted guest instrumentalists on the Prudential Hall stage weren’t exhilarating enough on the night of November 9, NJPAC Community Engagement bookended Congas y Canto with a jazz Prelude in the lobby and a dance party with a DJ following the concert.


The main event reflected “The Age of Palmieri!” exclaimed host Felipe Luciano, introducing jazz statesman Eddie Palmieri at the piano. With a nod to his mentors, no less than Thelonious Monk, McCoy Tyner and Herbie Hancock, Palmieri dove into his signature compositions like “Palmas” (with McBride on the bass solo) and “Noble Cruise,” dedicated to Monk and informed by Hancock, as well as Tyner’s iconic “Sahara.”


Drummer and singer Sheila E. and Puerto Rican vocalist Tito Rojas (“Que Más Tú Quieres De Mí”) added to the heady blend of Latin, African, Afro-Cuban and salsa. Preaching the power of love, the charismatic Sheila E. convinced the entire audience to stand up and hug everyone within their radius before she wrapped up with “The Glamorous Life” and “Oye Como Va.”


The jazz ensemble of Elisabeth Morrow School in Englewood gave a pre-curtain concert – the students were welcomed themselves by McBride earlier in the evening – and DJ Checo of New Line Entertainment drew people to the dance floor in the lobby after the show.


The Count Basie Orchestra


The first snowmageddon of the season on November 15 paralyzed the entire metropolitan area, but the shows still went on in the Victoria Theater and Prudential Hall.


Those who made it to “The Vic” meandered forward to the front rows to share an intimate celebration of the Count Basie Orchestra’s 83rd anniversary, led by conductor Scotty Barnhart. This “wonderfully swinging unit” was introduced by Wayne Winborne, Executive Director of the Institute of Jazz Studies at Rutgers-Newark, which now houses an outstanding Count Basie collection.


The musicians included lead trombonist Clarence Banks, who was hired by “The Kid from Red Bank” more than three decades ago, and pianist Glen Pearson, who now sits on Basie’s bench. Stefon Harris, NJPAC’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz Education, guested on the vibes.  


From the get-go, the all-male orchestra opened with a Basie number, “The Wind Machine,” and continued to spin off Basie Orchestra standards like “Back to the Apple,” “9:20 Special,” “Blues in Hoss’ Flat” and “Shiny Stockings.” A favorite with NJPAC audiences, powerhouse vocalist Catherine Russell made her appearance with “I’m Beginning to See the Light,” and was later joined by Kurt Elling, who lent his rich baritone to “Alright, Okay, You Win” and “Don’t Worry ‘Bout Me”; the latter he recorded for the orchestra’s All About That Basie album.


Cécile McLorin Salvant: Ogresse


One of the more unusual festival offerings was Ogresse – a new work of, for lack of an easier term, fairytale jazz musical theater, written and performed by acclaimed young singer-songwriter Cécile McLorin Salvant.


Jointly commissioned by NJPAC, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, this song cycle tells the story of a dark-skinned ogre woman with a tragic backstory, a lonely heart – and a taste for human flesh.


Salvant, fronting a small orchestra that included a banjo, a string quartet and a tuba, sang the roles of all the characters in the piece, from the Ogresse herself to a wandering child who gets devoured, and a hunter who (nearly) tames the Ogresse with his kindness.  All sorts of issues of race, gender and power are touched on by the lyrics (which the audience got a copy of, in a slim book handed out after the performance).


Wearing a long white gown that was equal parts Victorian and ecclesiastic – embroidered with her own drawings and the word “Beware” – Salvant molded her voice to fit each role, from the thin soprano of a little girl, to the harsh nasal tone of the townspeople who seek the Ogresse’s demise. Interwoven with the narrative were interludes of jaunty, uptempo jazz tunes in French, which Salvant sang as though channeling Edith Piaf. The presentation was so chipper it took a moment to register that the lyrics of these songs were the Ogresse’s recipes for her human victims.


The story builds slowly to a boiling point, when the betrayed Ogresse’s rage starts a forest fire. At that point, Salvant turned her back on the audience, and the baker’s dozen musicians behind her stepped into the role of the all-consuming flames, shaking and swaying as they played louder and louder yet, led by Brandon Seabrook, slashing away at the banjo as though it were a heavy metal instrument. It was as weird and glorious and disturbing a moment as was likely ever seen on an NJPAC stage.


Before the NJPAC concert on November 16, Salvant had performed Ogresse only once before, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It is slated to have two more outings, one at the McCarter Theatre Center in Princeton, and one at the Kennedy Center.


Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition


For the seventh year running, one of the concluding events of the Moody festival was the Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition on November 18, which offers young jazz singers a boost in their careers with a cash prize and, this year, a slot at both the Newport Jazz Festival and New York’s Jazz Standard.


Five finalists – selected from a field of 600 online submissions, sent in from Russia, Australia and everywhere in between – sang their hearts out for a packed house in the Victoria Theater. At the very back of the audience sat a judges’ panel – including Stefon Harris, the vibraphonist who is also NJPAC’s Artistic Advisor for Jazz Education; vocalist and six-time GRAMMY nominee Nnenna Freelon; Mary Ann Topper, President of Jazz Tree, Inc. artist management; trumpeter and composer Jon Faddis; and Sheila Anderson, the WBGO radio personality – tasked with the unenviable job of choosing which performer was best: Oleg Akkuratov, Gabrielle Cavassa, Olivia Chindamo, Tasha Comeaux or Laurin Talese.


For only the second year, the finalists included a male artist: Akkuratov, a pianist and singer from the Russian Federation, who was born blind – a condition that didn’t stop him from studying and teaching at a slew of Russian music conservatories, and then touring the world. Not only did he accompany himself on the piano, he introduced and sang American jazz standards like “Nature Boy” in flawless, accent-less English. He took second place in the contest. Comeaux, of Hartford, Conn. took third place with her easy, bluesy performance filled with R&B touches, and scatting that effortlessly mimicked a range of horn sounds.


But, after a long interlude of deliberation (during which the audience was treated to a short performance by last year’s winner, Quiana Lynell), the big prize went to Cleveland native Talese, who is based in New York City.


Already a recorded artist – her album, Gorgeous Chaos, features heavyweights like Christian McBride and his trio – Talese charmed the audience and the judges. In a classically glamorous white satin gown, she gave a sultry rendering of “Someone to Watch Over Me,” among other standards, conjuring a night at a 1950s jazz club with effortless élan.


Nov. 30, 2018