TD James Moody Jazz Festival brings musical fireworks to NJPAC

Christian McBride, Dianne Reeves

Following his “One on One” concert with Dianne Reeves at NJPAC in Newark, Nov. 10, Christian McBride posted this photo of himself with Reeves on his Facebook page.

The New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. And the annual TD James Moody Jazz Festival — which takes place every fall, mostly at NJPAC (with some shows at other venues) — deserves to be regarded as one of its greatest achievements: A major jazz festival, unlike anything else that currently exists in Northern New Jersey.

I attended three concerts at this year’s sixth annual edition of the festival, which took place from Nov. 4 to 12. And they were all excellent. I reviewed the Nov. 6 “Crosscurrents” show by Zakir Hussain, Dave Holland and Friends here, but also saw singer Dianne Reeves’s “One on One” concert with bassist Christian McBride, Nov. 10, and the the all-star tribute to Ella Fitzgerald and Dizzy Gillespie, Nov. 12. So here are some thoughts on those.

The “One on One” series, which has paired McBride (NJPAC’s jazz advisor) with artists such as Pat Metheny, Esperanza Spalding and Bruce Hornsby over the years, is a remarkable thing in and of itself, offering evenings of insightful conversation and virtuosic collaboration. McBride, who lives in Montclair, is arguably the leading jazz bassist of his generation, and he has drawn similarly stellar musicians into the series. He introduced Reeves as “our greatest living jazz singer,” and I wouldn’t argue with that assessment.

McBride also mentioned that he knew Reeves so well that there was nothing he could ask her that he didn’t know already. And so the evening took on the air of two old friends relaxing in front of an audience, sharing familiar stories — including one about Reeves meeting Sarah Vaughan for the first time, in the ’70s, and another one about her meeting The Temptations, when she was even younger — when not dazzling with their musical chops.

Reeves sang everything from Mongo Santamaria’s bright, airy “Afro Blue” to the barroom classic “One for My Baby (and One More for the Road).” I’ve never seen McBride play piano before, but he did at this show, for “Lullaby for a Ladybug,” which Reeves sang on, as she did on his 2000 Sci-Fi album. McBride also sang the standard “Come Rain or Come Shine” in the style of James Brown, and pulled off a perfect imitation — it’s something he probably wouldn’t have tried if he weren’t at a venue that’s a kind of home base for him, and in the company of an old friend. 

The show was in NJPAC’s Victoria Theater; two nights later, McBride was in NJPAC’s larger Prudential Hall, leading his big band in the centennial tribute to Fitzgerald and Gillespie (both were born in 1917). It made perfect sense for this festival to honor Gillespie, in particular. Gillespie and James Moody often worked together, and were close friends. Gillespie was, in fact, the best man at Moody’s third and final marriage; Moody’s widow, Linda, attended the show and spoke briefly at the beginning of it.

The Gillespie tribute came first; a set of Fitzgerald songs came after the intermission. Randy Brecker and Sean Jones were the trumpeters called on to evoke Gillespie’s magic, with backing by McBride and the big band. And they did so dependably on “Doodlin’,” “I Remember Clifford” and “Minor Walk” (all Jones) and “Two Bass Hit” and “Cubana Be, Cubana Bop” (both Brecker).  Finally, everyone joined forces for an overwhelmingly powerful “Manteca.”

In the second half of the show, vocalists Gregory Porter, Lizz Wright and Valerie Simpson sang songs associated with Fitzgerald. Also, violinist Regina Carter took the lead on an instrumental version of “A-Tisket, A-Tasket,” and dueted with guitarist Mark Whitfield (who was part of the big band) on Hoagy Carmichael’s “Judy” — which, as Carter explained, was the song that Fitzgerald broke through with, at an Apollo Theatre talent show, in 1934.

Simpson and Porter made, perhaps, the biggest impressions: Simpson with her melodramatic “Blues in the Night” and ebullient “Get Happy,” and Porter with his grandly yearning “Over the Rainbow” and his swinging “But Not for Me.” Porter and McBride played “Betwitched, Bothered and Bewildered” as an exquisite duo, and Porter, Simpson, Wright and Carter all performed on the celebratory, show-closing “Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off.”

My only criticism is that, for a tribute show, there was virtually no discussion about the artists being honored. I realize that it wouldn’t have been a good idea to take a lot of performance time away from the lineup of heavyweights that had been assembled. But a few more remarks, here and there, about how Gillespie and Fitzgerald influenced the performers, and changed the course of jazz in general, might have enhanced the evening.

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