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Come out to hear saxophonist James Moody and you know he'll play that song.
"I can't stop playing it. It wouldn't make sense. The song is why people come to my shows," Moody says over the telephone when asked if he ever gets sick of playing "Moody's Mood for Love." It's the song that put him on the map and helped solidify a new style of singing called "jazz vocalese."
You've probably heard the song even if you're not a jazz fan, not the least because it's been kept alive in recent decades by folks from Van Morrison and George Benson to Queen Latifah and Amy Winehouse. First there was the song "I'm in the Mood for Love," which had been around since the 1930s. Then Moody recorded his improvised interpretation in 1949. Then the vocalist Eddie Jefferson — doing what vocalese artists do — put words to what Moody had played: "There I go, there I go, there I go, there-ere I go," goes the beginning. Moody's on-the-spot variation on the original became the melody for a new song.
How it became popular is another story altogether.
In 1949, Moody — who had played in Dizzy Gillespie's big band in New York — moved to Paris, where he played gigs infrequently and mostly loafed around, as he tells it. Metronome Records in Stockholm hired him for the recording session that produced his take on "I'm in the Mood for Love." Back in the States, Moody's inspired solo inspired lyrics by Eddie Jefferson. Those words to Moody's solo in turn were recorded by another vocalist (and vocalese-ist) named King Pleasure in 1952 — and became a hit.
Moody says one night he attended a jam session. A woman asked him to play "I'm in the Mood for Love." He did, and afterwards she criticized him, complaining that it didn't sound anything like the record. A week later, the singer Babs Gonzales informed Moody that "Moody's Mood for Love" was a big hit, and offered some advice:
"You should come back and make some bread. Then you can go back to Paris." Moody returned to New York in 1952, copyrighted his solo as the new melody so he could collect royalties, and he went on tour. Detroit was one of his first stops. He has fond memories of the city from that stop — when his sextet played the Madison Ballroom at Woodward and East Forest — and others. He attended legendary after-hours jam sessions at Sunnie Wilson's Mark Twain Hotel on Grand River, where Bird, Miles and other musicians often stayed when they were in town. He also met his first wife here.
During those years, Moody says he battled alcoholism. "Finally I said to myself, 'Man, if you don't stop this drinking, it's going to do you in.' I got on the bus and went to a facility in Overbrook, N.J. The funny thing was I had a bottle of wine with me in my saxophone case. I downed it and went in," Moody recalls. He stayed in the facility for three months. Shortly, after he was released, the saxophonist made the classic '50s album Last Train from Overbrook, featuring the tune of the same name.
During the 1960s Moody reunited with Gillespie, and toured with him off and on for a decade; the sax man made 10 albums during that period. In 1973, Moody moved to Las Vegas to be with his family. There he performed with top acts such as Ann-Margaret, Liberace and Elvis. The saxophonist divorced, and returned to New York in 1983. Three years later, he was nominated for a Grammy. Throughout the '80s and '90s he toured and released 12 albums, and last August, he released Moody 4A, his 64th album as a leader.
On it, Moody performs jazz standards such as "Round Midnight," "Without a Song" and "Stablemates." Moody considers the album a big deal because he reunited with longtime collaborator Kenny Barron on piano. And with his improvisational appetite clearly intact, he's emphatic about never retiring.
"My goal in life is to play better tomorrow than I did yesterday," he says. "I'm in competition with myself and nobody else."
James Moody performs Wednesday through Saturday (6 and 8 p.m. seatings Wednesday and Thursday; 6, 8:30 and 10:30 Friday and Saturday) at the Dirty Dog Jazz Café, 97 Kercheval Ave., Grosse Pointe Farms; 313-882-5299.