Saxophonist James Moody has made a career out of not acting his age, so why should his 80th-birthday celebration be any different?
At the Kennedy Center's Eisenhower Theater on Saturday night, the irrepressibly lighthearted guest of honor was on a roll, bursting into silly romantic verse ("You are too beautiful for one man alone, so do you mind if I bring along my buddy?"), scat-yodeling like a bebopper with a vacation home in the Swiss Alps, and singing, with all the comic flamboyance he could muster, the male and female parts on his signature song "Moody's Mood for Love." As if to prove he's still the youngest kid at heart on the block, he also updated that classic jazz refrain with an amusingly choreographed hip-hop interlude. And when Moody wasn't laughing, singing, rapping and, yes, playing sax and flute with customary finesse, he blew a blizzard of kisses to all of his friends onstage, including fellow NEA Jazz Masters Jimmy Heath, Slide Hampton and Paquito D'Rivera.
He wasn't the only one getting laughs, however. After Moody mentioned that Heath has been his friend for 59 years, Hampton cracked wise: "In 10 more years it will be something very romantic." D'Rivera likened catching a cab in Havana to "catching a penguin in Jamaica" when recalling his initial encounter in Cuba with Dizzy Gillespie, Moody's mentor.
Which brings us to the music. Hampton led the Dizzy Gillespie All-Star Big Band through a colorfully orchestrated collection of tunes that often illuminated the Gillespie-Moody connection. Playing tenor sax, Moody robustly revisited Gillespie's "Emanon," the tune that helped launch his career, but not before letting the evening's host, actor Danny Glover, in on a little bebop secret: "Emanon" is "no name" spelled backward.
The arrangements by Dennis Mackrel, the ensemble's drummer, and others, including the late Ernie Wilkins, often made splendid use of the talent onstage. The Jazz Masters were generously showcased, as soloists or composers. Heath's "Moody's Groove," sung by Roberta Gambarini, who displayed remarkable range and a great flair for scatting throughout the concert, summed up the prevailing mood: "Sweet music that's groovy / The sound of James Moody."
D'Rivera, too, was in terrific form, doubling on sax and clarinet and blowing gales of life into the performances of "Manteca" and "A Night in Tunisia." Nearly everyone in the ensemble got a chance to solo, and since the lineup featured trumpeters Roy Hargrove, Randy Brecker, Claudio Roditi, saxophonist Antonio Hart and pianist Mulgrew Miller, among others, there was no shortage of well-earned ovations. Mackrel's brashly harmonized arrangement of Thelonious Monk's "I Mean You," imaginatively punctuated by Miller, was particularly enjoyable, as was the band's fulgent take on "Things to Come."
If good genes count for anything, this won't be the last round-numbered birthday celebration the Kennedy Center will host for Moody. Midway through the concert, he gave a shout-out to his uncle, who bought him his first saxophone. He was seated in the audience.
The concert was taped by National Public Radio for broadcast on New Year's Eve.