In 1951, Herbie Mann and Phil Woods played together for the first time, at a Brooklyn club called Tony’s Bar. Surprisingly, given the similar trajectories of their careers, this recording marks the first time the jazz legends have played together since the post-war period.
Back in the early ‘50s, when Mann and Woods were making their bones at Tony’s, harmonic modality was the big thing. Although the intervening years have seen them stray in many different directions (Mann even recorded three disco albums in the 1970s), Beyond Brooklyn sees them returning, at least thematically, to the sounds of their youth.
Of course, modality is no longer the heady political statement it once was. There was a time when any overt or implicit rejection of the traditional Western approach to the chromatic scale formula was seen as a radical departure. But in the intervening years, the technical advancements that underlie modal paradigm shifts such as Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue have successfully been absorbed into the mainstream musical establishment. Nowadays, it’s the rare critic who will even register what kind of scale the latest pop gem utilizes, and in terms of the avant garde, it’s the even more rare free jazz or IDM composer who would dream of composing with anything so gauche as actual notes.
Beyond Brooklyn has the cozy feel of an epilogue, a feeling which is abetted by the unfortunate knowledge that Mann passed away from prostate cancer in July of 2003. These recordings were made in the months before his death, with one final track, “Time After Time”, recorded scant weeks before.
The opening number, “We Will Meet Again”, is set to a sly bossa nova shuffle that recalls Mann’s lifelong fascination with Latin rhythmical forms. Both Mann’s flute and Wood’s alto saxophone are in fine lyrical form, and the two disparate instruments make a cohesive harmonic unit.
“Alvin G” is a boisterous workout, both soloists taking full advantage of the rhythm section’s cool bedrock. In particular, Mann’s playful interplay with Alain Mallet’s whimsical piano is excellent. Duke Ellington’s “Azure” receives the royal treatment, with Woods switching from sax to clarinet in order deliver the song’s moody swoon.
“Bohemia After Dark” is a bop throwback featuring an extended sparring match between Woods and Mann. Antonio Carlos Jobim’s “Caminhos Cruzados” is another bossa nova number, with the sparse and vital evocation of languid and lilting tension.
From Jobim to Charlie Parker, the band switches gears again for another hard bop workout with “Au Private”, featuring gratifyingly extended solos by support staff Mallet and Roger Humphries on drums. “Another Shade of Blues” introduces Gil Goldstein on the accordion as the group shuffles into a lazy tango. Woods returns to the clarinet for an especially sly and seductive solo.
“Blood Count”, towards the end of the album, introduces a note of mournful regret accentuated by Mann’s conspicuous absence. On an album of dueling solos, the presence of Woods’s unaccompanied saxophone can’t help but seem melancholy. Before the album rings it’s last, however, “Little Niles” is a surprisingly spry modal set piece with a slight garnish of dissonant fusion, providing just enough friction to inspire the album’s most deliciously tortured work from both Mann and Woods.
Beyond Brooklyn will be remembered as the last testament of one of modern music’s great unsung craftsmen. The flute is perhaps the most under-appreciated instrument in the modern jazz canon, and few did as much to elevate the humble woodwind to major league status as Herbie Mann. It is fitting that his final recordings present the artist in full swing, playing with an ease and buoyancy that belied his age and illness. That he was gifted with such an able and simpatico partner as Woods for this workout is a great gift to jazz aficionados everywhere. It won’t, perhaps, be remembered as a groundbreaking or revolutionary recording, but it should be remembered as a fitting final chapter in the life of a great musician.