Thursday, April 3, 2008


The 80s Never Sounded So Good

April 4, 2008

This week, the New York clubs are dominated by a "Subway Series"-style battle of the generations: It's the 70-somethings versus the 80-somethings. At Dizzy's Club Coca-Cola, the co-headliners are the 79-year-old singer Ernestine Anderson and the 73-year-old tenor saxophonist Houston Person, while downtown at the Blue Note, the 86-year-old singer-songwriter Jon Hendricks is sharing the stage with one of the few surviving first-generation beboppers, the equally brilliant saxophonist and entertainer James Moody, 83. The program is officially billed as "James Moody Quartet with special guest Jon Hendricks," but during the late show on Tuesday night, the two octogenarians split the set evenly, doing four numbers each.

The program was even more symmetrical than that, because each star favored the four B's: a bopper, a ballad, a bossa, and a blues. Mr. Moody started with a stomping "Eternal Triangle" (a classic "I Got Rhythm" variant by his contemporary, Sonny Stitt) before effortlessly launching into a moving and tender reading of "Body and Soul," with a dramatic opening cadenza; here, bassist Todd Coolman (generally introduced by Mr. Moody as "Cool Man") heavily quoted from the leader's legendary solo on "I'm in the Mood for Love." Mr. Moody then switched to flute for Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Wave," on which it was pianist Renee Rosnes's turn to quote (from "Love for Sale").

Mr. Moody wound up his portion of the set with Charlie Parker's famous blues "Au Private," which he recorded on his 1966 album, "Moody and the Brass Figures," after first calling the expert trombonist Steve Davis to share the stage with him. The saxophonist then introduced his guest vocalist by telling us that Mr. Hendricks is "wise beyond his years" — considerable (and accurate) praise, considering that he is 86. As a representative sample of his wisdom, the singer's first move was to invite Messrs. Moody and Davis to remain onstage and keep the blues mood going with "Jimmy's Blues." The classic 12-bar tune is rocking and funny enough as Jimmy Rushing originally sang it with Count Basie, but with additional erotically comic verses by Mr. Hendricks, it's even more of a crowd pleaser.

Back in the 1980s and '90s — and for at least 30 years before that — Mr. Hendricks was omnipresent on the New York jazz scene: If he wasn't headlining or filling in when a scheduled act was ailing (as he did at least once for the late Joe Williams at the Blue Note), Mr. Hendricks was usually sitting in, or sometimes just kibitzing from the sidelines. Then, in September 2001, right around Mr. Hendricks's 80th birthday, he watched as terrorists nearly destroyed Battery Park City and the apartment he keeps there. He was already spending a lot of time at the University of Toledo, but seeing his neighborhood attacked undoubtedly reinforced his decision to concentrate on teaching and leading his 13-voice choir in his native Ohio. We never quite took it for granted that Mr. Hendricks would always be on the scene, but now that he only works occasionally in New York, his appearances here are, more than ever, cause for celebration.

On Tuesday, Mr. Hendricks's Brazilian number ("Chega de Saudade") and his bop number (Thelonious Monk's "Evidence") both pivoted around instrumental impressions. On the first, he transformed a drumstick into a flute (following Mr. Moody's example of using that horn for Jobim) with a whistling solo; on the second, he played both a pantomime tenor sax (at one point adjusting his imaginary ligature in between bleats and blasts) and bass. Mr. Hendricks remains one of the few scat singers to whom I can listen and enjoy for durations of a whole chorus or longer; he's no Paul Robeson (or Billy Eckstine) vocally, but he has a strong harmonic sense and even more imagination. Mr. Hendricks then introduced his next song as a request from … himself. This was his favorite ballad of recent years, "The September of My Years" (written by Cahn & Van Heusen for Frank Sinatra on the album of that same title), on which the extroverted bopper suddenly became intimate, personal, and vulnerable. Again, he never had Sinatra's chops, but, like the Chairman, he transformed the song into a microcosm of his decades of experience. In addition to teaching and conducting in Toledo, Mr. Hendricks is also said to be working on his autobiography; I doubt that it could be more revealing than his performance of this song.

Mr. Moody then reclaimed the stage and played a chaser of "St. Thomas." The closest thing to a disappointment during the set was that the two principals did not get together for a spectacular finale: I was waiting for "Everybody's Boppin'" or "Moody's Mood." But then, though the set seemed like it had just started, it was actually midnight; the two stars had been going for a full 90 minutes, and considering that they brought nearly 170 years of experience to the stage, that ain't too bad.

No comments: