In case you were wondering, Fred Wesley still knows how to get down. At the tender age of 68, the Funkiest Trombonist of All Time overcame a long cross-country flight and a bout with acute bronchitis to serve as the guest artist for the Oceanside Jazz Festival, an all-day celebration of local college and high school jazz ensembles.
I drove down to Oceanside to catch the final concert, which featured the Mira Costa Jazz Collective and Mira Costa Oceanside Jazz Orchestra (operating under the clever acronym MOJO) directed by Steve Torok with Wesley as the guest soloist.
Fred was gracious enough to chat a bit before the show, although he was clearly exhausted from the day’s medical adventures. He had participated in an earlier Q & A session with the students at the festival, many of whom had read his autobiography, and seemed heartened by the energy and the questions that the students had offered. He seemed to enjoy being in the role of lineage-bearer, which was especially clear when he was rehearsing the band before the concert.
I also have to admit, this was probably the most star-stricken I have ever felt in my life. Even with two years of experience interviewing jazz musicians under my belt, sitting in Wesley’s presence reduced me at times to a speechless fan-boy. The asymmetry of the exchange — with me knowing so much more about him than vice versa — was palpable, but Fred was gracious and patient.
Finally, the band took the stage to get the show rolling. The concert was much too long — I had to leave after two and a half hours while the big band played their penultimate song. Both ensembles performed 3-4 of their own material before inviting Wesley to join them as a guest soloist. Each time that he stepped on the stage, though, the level of musicianship and intensity throughout the ensemble shot through the roof.
Both bands were solid — the Collective especially played some really nice stuff. But it was Fred’s originals, such as “For the Elders” and “Pass the Peas,” that stood out, with Wesley coolly sailing through improvised solo features with his characteristically dark, round tone. Watching him live, I was reminded of Count Basie (Welsey was a member of the band briefly in the 1970s) in that he seemed above the fray, grooving impeccably with a brilliant nonchalance. He puts just the right amount of slide in his pitch inflections, making his lines bluesy but not brash. And even with a college band that occasionally struggled to lock it in, Wesley put everything so deep in the pocket that he brought everyone down inside with him.
Congratulations are in order for everyone involved with this festival — events like these are an excellent way to honor the jazz tradition and inspire young musicians. The whole evening had a great vibe, full of animated youngsters (yes, I’m 27 and I get to say that for once!) and presided over by the generous spirit of one of the music’s living legends.
There was also this, one last treat for that hopeless fan-boy:
Thanks, Fred! And to Joya Wesley, Fred’s daughter and manager, as well as to Steve Torok for putting it all together — and of course to the many students whose enthusiasm for the music laid the foundation for this wonderful event.