“Smack-a-Mac” (1966) James Moody and the Brass Figures


Composed and arranged by Tom McIntosh.

Recorded by James Moody and the Brass Figures for Milestone during October-November 1966 in New York.

Tom McIntosh, arranger/conductor, directing: James Moody, tenor saxophone; Eugene “Snooky” Young, first trumpet; Jimmy Owens, trumpet; Jimmy Cleveland, trombone; Don Butterfield, tuba; Kenny Barron, piano; Bob Cranshaw, bass; Mel Lewis, drums.

The story: 

I was once very fortunate to have had the opportunity to have some interaction with the great jazz musician James Moody (1925-2010), and to hear him play in a setting marvelously conducive to a live audience enjoying his music. The back story of how Moody came to play a splendid concert in Canton, Ohio, not necessarily the most jazz-friendly town on the planet, in the mid-1980s, would fill a small book.

The condensed version of that story is that I and several other people who were interested in jazz formed a loose-knit organization the sole purpose of which was to give those in our local community who were interested opportunities to enjoy jazz. Initially, this involved only get-togethers at each others’ homes to listen to recorded music. Over time, discussions began about producing an actual jazz event. These discussions, in retrospect, were driven by idealism, and sustained over a period of weeks by irrational exuberance. Those of us involved in these discussions knew almost nothing about producing such an event.

The first concert that was produced featured the jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal. It was staged in a location that was almost completely unsuitable for the concert, and for the piano, bass and drums that would be presented. This location was a large open space in a complex that housed several small facilities including an art museum, a 500 seat amphitheater that was used for amateur stage productions, and a small music recital space that had a lovely stage and a concert grand piano on it, and good acoustics, but nothing else. Chairs had to be set on the floor, and perhaps 150 chairs would be the maximum number that could be accommodated.

I vividly recall when Jamal came to the venue on the summer afternoon of the day the concert was to take place to look around. As he surveyed the open space, its terrazzo floor, flat brick interior walls and large glass windows, his brow knitted. Then he sat down and tried out the piano. It was the concert grand from the small recital hall. It had been moved into the open space by the maintenance staff of the facility. After playing a few chords and runs, and pecking at a few keys, he said, “this piano is really out of tune.” We assured Mr. Jamal that we would get the piano tuned before the concert, somehow. Fortunately, a local piano tuner was available on short notice and he rushed over and tuned the piano before the evening concert. (Above left: Ahmad Jamal.)

The concert that evening was attended by about 300 people. That part of the undertaking was a major success. The audience sat on not particularly comfortable chairs that were set up on the floor around the piano, bass and drums. Mr. Jamal was the soul of professionalism, though it was obvious to me that he and his accompanists were fighting the acoustics throughout the entire concert. Whenever they played anything at even a moderate dynamic level, the sounds they were creating ricocheted off of the hard flat surfaces surrounding them in a most unpleasant fashion. Out of necessity, Jamal played almost everything at almost a whisper, except for the finale, which he and his associates belted out, and let the sonic cacophony fly.

At the end of the concert as Mr. Jamal was being paid, he said to us in the most polite tone of voice: “This space is really not suitable for live music. If you decide to have another concert, I suggest that you present it in a space that has better acoustics.”

In the wake of that experience, our group eventually decided to stage the next concert in the 500 seat amphitheater within the same complex. It had a spacious stage, good acoustics and comfortable seats. As it would turn out, that was a good decision. We just had to secure the services of a jazz artist whose reputation was strong enough to help us to sell enough tickets at an appropriate price to pay all of the expenses that would arise throughout the project. After some hard work with a booking agent where we considered many artists, we decided to book James Moody.

I was thrilled with this choice because I had a number of Moody’s LPs, and it was clear to me that he was a masterful musician, and a superb jazz artist. Before we signed the contract for Moody, we had to select an appropriate support group for him of piano, bass and drums. Various members made suggestions, and we ended up with three very good jazz musicians from the Cleveland-Akron area who well aware of who James Moody was, and what level technically and creatively he operated on. They were thrilled to have the opportunity to work with him, but at the same time were a bit intimidated. (Above right: jazz titan James Moody.)

At some point, I was elected as the intermediary between Mr. Moody and everybody else. I got his telephone number from his agent and called him. (All of this was happening well before cell phones, email, text messages.) He answered the phone and we had a pleasant, if short conversation. He wanted to know what the venue was like, what kind of piano was going to be used, and the names and phone numbers of the musicians who would be in the group that would be accompanying him, and where they were from. He also said that he would be providing me with a list of tunes that he wanted to play at the performance, and asked that I pass it along to those musicians. This first conversation occurred several months before the date the concert was to take place. In due course, the list of tunes arrived in my mailbox, and I relayed it to the trio, but kept a copy. The pianist in the trio informed me about the piano that would be used. It was electric, but, I was assured, had the sound of an in-tune concert grand. When I passed this information on to Mr. Moody on the phone, he groaned. “Electric pianos are OK, but I have yet to hear one that sounds like a concert grand. At least it will be in-tune.”

That phone call took place in mid-autumn. The concert was scheduled for mid-January. Moody and I agreed that it would be best for someone to pick him up at the Cleveland airport on the day of the concert. I called him back a couple of days later with detailed instructions about how he would meet and recognize the man who would chauffeur him the 60 miles from the Cleveland airport to the venue in Canton where he would be performing. He told me he would get back to me the day before the concert with his flight information. I gave Moody my home telephone number, and the number of the backstage phone at the venue. I told him that if he had any problems or concerns to call me. Fool that I was, I thought after that phone call that everything was perfectly in order for the James Moody jazz concert.

The day before the concert I received a phone call from James Moody. He was in Minneapolis. “It’s snowing pretty hard here right now,” he said. “I’m going to play the gig here tonight and then get on the plane tomorrow morning at 11:00. Everything should be fine. Don’t worry. I’ll call you when I get to the airport.” The next morning at 10:00 the phone rang. It was James Moody. “My flight has been delayed because of the snow. I guess we’ll have to just wait and see when this plane is going to leave.” I knew that we had sold 450 tickets for the Moody concert. I now had visions of having to refund all of the money we had collected in selling those tickets to irate jazz fans who were not going to hear James Moody that evening starting at 8:00. “OK. I will wait for your phone call when you know that,” I said. And I waited. Around 3:30, I got Moody’s next phone call. “We are going to be leaving within the next fifteen minutes. We should be landing in Cleveland between 6 and 6:30. We will be cutting it close, but I think I’m going to be there on-time.” I thanked Moody profusely, and told him I was looking forward to meeting him and hearing him play. What I didn’t tell him is that the blizzard that had dumped a foot of snow on Minneapolis the day before had now arrived in northeast Ohio.

Right after that phone call, I called the man who was going to pick Moody up at the airport and gave him the latest information. I also gave him my home phone number and the backstage phone number, and told him I would be at the venue at 6:30, so all calls to me should be at that number after 6:30.

I arrived at the venue at 6:30, having driven through a snowstorm to get there from my home. This drive usually took about fifteen minutes. On this evening, it took a half-hour. Soon, people started to arrive. By 7:15, the amphitheater was half full. The trio of musicians who would be supporting Moody arrived at 7:20, and were set-up at center stage in front of the curtain by 7:30. Now, probably 350 people were there, talking, milling about and generally enjoying themselves. At about that time, the backstage phone rang. It was the driver. He had met Moody at the Cleveland airport and they were headed for the car. I knew at that moment that there was no way Moody that would be able to appear onstage before 8:30. I immediately told the trio of musicians of this and asked them if they could extend their pre-James warmup as needed until he arrived. They agreed to to that. Then I pulled out my copy of the sheet Moody had sent me, and handed it to the pianist. “Please don’t play any of these tunes before James gets here,” I said. The piano player smiled and said: “we’re cool.”

I was not cool. I had no idea when James Moody was going to arrive, or indeed if he was going to arrive in time to play any part of the concert.

At 8:00 sharp, the person who was tasked as being the emcee went to the microphone onstage and introduced the back-up trio. Just before 8:00, I updated him and the trio with respect to Moody’s travel issues, and we decided that we had to tell the audience the truth, as best we knew it, about Moody being somewhere between Cleveland and Canton in a car in a snowstorm. The emcee did a good job of informing the audience, and the trio started playing. I stood in the wings and sweated bullets. The period of time from 8:00 to 8:15 seemed like several hours. The trio was digging-in, first playing something up-tempo and happy, followed by a slow blues. They stretched each tune. 8:15 slowly became 8:30. Still no James Moody.

At 8:40, I turned around and Moody was suddenly behind me, wearing a parka and an animal-skin cap, carrying a large instrument case. “Are you Mike”? he asked with a smile. “Yes,'” I replied. “I’m really glad to see you.” I said. “Do you need to do anything before you go on”? He didn’t. “Just let me put together my alto and tenor,” he said. He then assembled those horns, and laid them on his instrument case. “I’m not going to mess with the flute right now,” he said. “I think I am going to have to lay some heavy tenor sounds on the people first, and see what happens.” The emcee had rushed backstage when he saw Moody in the wings and asked if he should introduce him. “No, no. I’ll take care of that,” Moody said. Then he removed his shoes, attached his alto to his neck strap, and stepped closer to the edge of the wings, tenor in hand, so the trio could see him, but the audience couldn’t. He made a gesture with his right forefinger going across his neck, and they stopped playing. He then started to play “Cherokee” on his tenor saxophone, and waltzed out onto the stage in his stockinged feet. The trio fell in behind him. The audience applauded and cheered. “Cherokee” lasted for about five minutes, including a cadenza that was the jazz equivalent of a massive fireworks display on the Fourth of July. As the last note sounded, the audience rose to its feet and applauded and cheered for a good thirty seconds. “Thank you nice people,” Moody said. He had the audience in the palm of his hand.

He then briefly explained why he was late, in a most humorous fashion, and soon had the audience laughing. For the next 90 minutes, James Moody played some of the most inspired, swinging jazz I have ever heard. He also made sure to keep the audience loose with his witty remarks between tunes.

The music:

James Moody was one of the most brilliant musicians I ever heard play. Although he played alto saxophone and flute with the same virtuosity and verve that he played tenor saxophone, I have always had a definite preference for his work on tenor. Why I have had that preference is centered around the sound Moody got out of a tenor saxophone. Although these things are hard to explain, his sound on tenor struck my ear as a perfect distillation of the massive tone of Coleman Hawkins, the light, floating sound and attitude of Lester Young, and jazz ideas and rhythmic approach of Charlie Parker. Although James Moody was definitely a bopper, his musical personality, like Bird’s and bop king Dizzy Gillespie’s was much bigger than bop. Bop was one of many tools in his musical tool chest. Swing was another of his tools. I never heard him play a note that didn’t swing. (Above right: James Moody shown with his mentor and frequent collaborator, Dizzy Gillespie.)

In this performance, we hear Moody’s aggressive attack in all its glory. In music, the term attack refers to the manner in which a note is played by a musician, whether decisive and quick, or smooth and slow. More often, however, the word attack is used to refer to the initial part of the envelope of sound which also includes decay and sustain. An attack can be slow, meaning the initiation of the sounding of the note takes place slowly, starting softly at first, then coming to the full volume of the note. Or an attack can be fast, reaching full volume very quickly or at the moment the note is sounded. Moody’s attack was fast. When he hit a note, there was no doubt about it.

In addition, his jazz improvisations flowed out of his instruments with sovereign ease, no matter how many notes they contained, or at what tempo. On the recording presented here, Moody states the catchy theme first, and then improvises at various speeds. But no matter how fast he was playing, he articulated every note cleanly, and squarely on pitch. Nevertheless, Moody artistry was so great that whatever he did seemed to be done with almost casual ease.

The support Moody gets here is strong and swinging. Drummer Mel Lewis lays down a back-beat throughout this recording. He and Don Butterfield on tuba provide a rock-solid rhythmic foundation for Moody and the other horn players to work against. In the last chorus we hear trumpeter Snooky Young leading the ensemble with power and brilliance. (Above right: Snooky Young – first trumpet par excellence.)

The recording presented with this post was digitally remastered by Mike Zirpolo.


Here are some links to some other great jazz performances presented here at swingandbeyond.com:









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