calendar  |  musicians  |  venues  |  concert reviews  |  CD reviews  |  photos  |  features

Terence Blanchard

James Moody

Nnenna Freelon

Proctor's Theatre
Schenectady, NY
February 23, 2008

By J Hunter

One of the things I really regret is never attending the Monterey Jazz Festival. At one time, I lived only 90 minutes from the State Fairgrounds, where Jimmy Lyons inaugurated the annual event in 1959. That makes this year the festival's golden anniversary, and Nnenna Freelon summed it up the best: "50 years deserves a party, don't you think?" With that in mind, a collective of Monterey alumni rolled into Schenectady to give those who've never been to Monterey Jazz a taste of (in the words of Kendrick Scott) "one of the last festivals that calls itself a jazz festival, and is one!"

I'm always wary of all-star bands, because the interplay and chemistry everyone thinks should be there usually doesn't show up. No worries here, thanks in part to their 54-city tour. ("Two-and-a-half months of one-nighters on a bus," musical director Benny Green cracked.) James Moody and Terence Blanchard's lines on Dizzy Gillespie's "Be-Bop" couldn't have been tighter if they had been Super Glued together. Blanchard's horn was as clear and strong as anything Dizzy ever laid down, sketching a lovely contrast with Moody's broad tenor. Green's fills and comping was up to his usual standards, but Scott blew past those standards and set some of his own, dropping bombs and flourishes in just the right places as Derrick Hodge laid down a big thick floor for the front line.

Moody is in his 80's now – he played with Dizzy at Monterey 47 years before – but it'd be hard to find anyone who plays tenor sax as soulfully. His technique shows no signs of degradation, and everything he played and everything he said (and he said a lot) was a crowd pleaser. Taking the mic towards the end of the first set, he blew both the crowd and the band away with a hilarious take on "Pennies From Heaven" that was half-song, half-comedy routine about a child's dubious parentage. "You think we've been hearing the same thing over and over," Green confided to the audience, still chuckling. "He changes it up every night!"

Green hasn't changed at all, and that's kind of sad. Green was a 15-year old prodigy when he played with Monterey Jazz' high school jazz orchestra and, to my mind, he hasn't progressed much farther. Don't get me wrong: Green's support work was top notch, as it was for the Ray Brown Trio and the Dizzy Gillespie All-Stars, and his arrangement of the set-closer "Time After Time" was impeccable. But his solos never went beyond technical perfection – ever. There was nothing wrong with them, per se, but you'd think Green would get the same inspiration from this group that Moody obviously got, and I never got that sense.

On the other side of the spectrum was Blanchard, whose contributions were brilliant, effortless, and incredibly powerful. Both he and Moody worked with wireless mics on their instruments, but while Moody pretty much stayed put in front of his music stands, Blanchard stalked the stage, playing to the rhythm section in an effort to incite, or bending his knees and playing to the floor, as if trying to conjure notes up from the earth. The highlight of Blanchard's performance was two breathtaking pieces from the Katrina requiem A Tale of God's Will (Blue Note, 2007), which Blanchard premiered at Monterey last year; even more compelling was Blanchard's description of seeing footage of dead floating bodies in neighborhoods he used to hang out in.

Freelon may have only been onstage for parts of the two-set performance, but her contributions were as compelling as anything she did last fall at Albany Riverfront. She and Hodge collaborated on a duet version of "Skylark" that was a musical definition of intimacy; she preceded that with a full-band rendition of "Winter Love", her lyrics to Gerald Wilson's "A Suite for Monterey." Right beside Freelon's usual vocal brilliance was her also-usual wry sense of humor. "Did they tell you we were on a 54-city tour," she asked, feigning weariness. "I'm lucky I remembered this was Schenectady!"

We were lucky the concert promoters added Schenectady to the bill, as this rolling tribute gave a big contribution to Proctors' ongoing revitalization. I'll get to the Monterey Jazz Festival eventually, but until then, the 50th Anniversary Tour made a great substitute, if only for one night.

J HUNTER is a former announcer/producer for radio stations in the Capital Region and the Bay Area, including KSJS/San Jose (where he was Assistant Music Director/Jazz programming), Q104 WQBK/Albany, and WSSV/Saratoga. He has also written music and theatre reviews for the Glens Falls Chronicle. He currently resides in Clifton Park.