TD James Moody Jazz Festival

Expect surprises from artists celebrating the sounds of Latin jazz.


By Will Friedwald


“Now in one of my earliest tunes, ‘New Orleans Blues,’ you can notice the Spanish tinge. In fact, if you can’t manage to put tinges of Spanish in your tunes, you will never be able to get the right seasoning, I call it, for jazz.” 


So declared Jelly Roll Morton, frequently known as “the inventor of jazz, blues, and stomps,” regarding a composition that he wrote in 1902. Never mind that it was Morton who gave himself that title and that credit – he knew what he was talking about when he proclaimed that “the Spanish Tinge,” as he called it, would be part of jazz from the very beginning. 


James Moody himself appreciated the Latin influence in jazz; after all, he apprenticed with Dizzy Gillespie, one of the major pioneers of the form, and he played it frequently himself. This year, the TD James Moody Jazz Festival at NJPAC (November 4-18) celebrates the ongoing greatness of the Afro Latin jazz genre with a spectacular series of concerts focusing on different aspects of the fusion of Pan-American music and North American jazz.


“Latin music is part of the soul of programming here at NJPAC and growing Latin audiences have been among our most loyal,” says David Rodriguez, NJPAC’s Executive Vice President and Executive Producer. “Since we opened in our first season with artists like Celia Cruz and Tito Puente, Latin music and culture continue to cross boundaries and positively influence jazz, classical, dance, and other genres that maintain a home at the Arts Center.”


If there’s one show that will best demonstrate just exactly what Latin jazz is and why we love it so much, it would be Congas y Canto: An Evening of Latin Jazz on November 9. Focusing on Puerto Rican and Cuban sounds, the concert will present stars on the three instruments that are probably most essential to this music: percussion headliner (and Prince collaborator) Sheila E., singer and salsa superstar Tito Rojas, and pianist / living legend Eddie Palmieri, all performing with Festival Artistic Director and NJPAC Jazz Advisor Christian McBride and his Big Band. Whereas Palmieri is a committed jazz musician – so much so that he has been named as an NEA jazz master – the music of Rojas and Sheila E. (born Sheila Cecelia Escovedo) proves that, in this music, the boundaries between pop and jazz are frequently fluid.


In Cuba and Puerto Rico, percussionists, singers and pianists are at the center of everything, but in South America, the guitar is king. Romero Lubambo is my own personal favorite contemporary Brazilian guitarist, and that’s hardly a minority opinion. He’s best known for playing in the world-famous Trio da Paz, and his equally glorious solo recitals; so, for Lubambo to work with other guitarists, as he’s doing on Guitar Passions (also on November 9), will be as exciting as it is rare. For this one night only, he conjoins with two fellow string wizards in related fields: classical guitar master Sharon Isbin and modern jazz virtuoso Stanley Jordan.


Speaking of guitars, it’s generally acknowledged that the single greatest guitarist in all of jazz and also the greatest jazz musician to come from Europe was the Belgian-born Django Reinhardt (1910-1953). The remarkable Django was also an early advocate of Latin jazz, and he could play sambas, choros and rhumbas alongside swing and bebop. The Django Festival All Stars have been celebrating the Django legacy for several decades now, but on Sunday, November 4, they will honor this aspect of his music by teaming up with the brilliant Colombian harp virtuoso Edmar Castañeda.


In the 21st century, young and innovative Latin American musicians continue to explore both the past and the future in a way that continually surprises even veteran listeners who know by now to expect the unexpected.


Who would have thought that a drummer, hitherto largely unknown except to jazz cognoscenti, could have caused a mainstream, mass media sensation with a performance of solo percussion? Such was the effect generated by Antonio Sánchez and his ground-breaking score to the 2014 Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). In the Birdman Live program November 8, Sánchez provides live accompaniment to a screening of the film.


Where 99 percent of film soundtracks use either big string orchestras playing ersatz classical music or recycled pop hits, director-producer-writer Alejandro G. Iñárritu had the unprecedented idea that he could underscore and illuminate the inner emotional life of the main character, Michael Keaton as “Riggan Thomson” (aka “Birdman”), with a series of unaccompanied drums – an idea that worked spectacularly well: The movie was a smash at the box office even while winning the Academy Award for Best Picture, as well as a Grammy for Best Soundtrack.


Is the music from Birdman strictly Latin jazz? Maybe, maybe not, but we now know that such borders are meant to be questioned. Latin jazz has been “a thing,” as they say these days, at least since 1902 (after all, why would Jelly Roll Morton lie?) and yet today’s players are constantly finding new things to do with it, new ways to play it, new approaches and sounds. In the words of Dizzy Gillespie, the sound of Latin jazz “is akin to the joy of the man who first discovered fire.”


Will Friedwald writes about music and popular culture for The Wall Street Journal, Vanity Fair and Playboy. He is the author of nine books, including the award-winning A Biographical Guide to the Great Jazz and Pop Singers and Sinatra: The Song Is You.



Top picks for the festival


More Latin jazz: Drummer Bobby Sanabria & ¡Quarteto Aché!  give a free noontime performance on November 7 at Newark’s Gateway II, presented by WBGO Jazz 88.3FM. This Music We Call Jazz: The Latin Connection exhibit, a collaboration between NJPAC and Congregation Ahavas Sholom in Newark, is on view at the temple’s Jewish Museum of New Jersey from November 4-January 27.


Dianne Reeves and Gregory Porter

Thursday, November 8, 8pm

Two of the greatest vocalists in jazz: Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Gregory Porter (the acclaimed album Nat King Cole & Me) and five-time Grammy winner and 2018 NEA Jazz Master Dianne Reeves


Marcus Miller & Friends

with special guest David Sanborn & Lalah Hathaway

Saturday, November 10, 8pm

The Grammy-winning multi-instrumentalist conjures up some world-class jazz with some of his favorite musicians, including his longtime collaborator – sax superstar David Sanborn – and soul-stirring vocalist Lalah Hathaway.


Jazz Vinyl Revisited: Joni Mitchell’s Mingus & Terri Lyne Carrington’s Money Jungle

Sunday, November 11, 3pm

Three ace vocalists (Jo Lawry, Kate McGarry and Luciana Souza) rendezvous with Mingus – Joni Mitchell’s tribute album to the great jazz bassist – AND drummer Terri Lyne Carrington performs Money Jungle: Provocative in Blue, her exciting take on Mingus’ 1962 classic collaboration with Duke Ellington and Max Roach.


Count Basie Orchestra

Thursday, November 15, 7:30pm

Top-notch, Swing Era jazz with special guests Jon Faddis on trumpet, Stefon Harris on vibes and singers Kurt Elling and Catherine Russell.


Cécile McLorin Salvant: Ogresse

Friday, November 16, 7:30pm

NJPAC, The Metropolitan Museum of Art and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts co-commission a new song cycle from one of the jazz world’s brightest singer-composers and two-time Grammy winner.


Sarah Vaughan International Jazz Vocal Competition: SASSY Awards

Sunday, November 18, 3pm

Hear from the jazz greats of tomorrow at this exciting afternoon of performances by the five finalists in this seventh annual competition, presented by NJPAC and WBGO in honor of Newark’s divine Sarah Vaughan.


Sept. 10, 2018