Phil Woods Quintet: American Songbook II

The music is well worth playing, and the alto saxophone master and his men know how to play it well, freshly.

Phil Woods Quintet

American Songbook II

Label: kind of blue
US Release Date: 2007-07-17
UK Release Date: 2007-07-16

Sometime within the past fifteen years I saw pretty much this very quintet at the Glasgow Jazz Festival, and that’s how long it's been since I was first impressed by Brian Lynch’s trumpet playing (Jim McNeely rather than the current man, Bill Charlap, was on piano, which dates the festival before 1995), but Bill Goodwin and Steve Gilmore, bassist and drummer, were doing the same beautifully relaxed and swinging thing notable on "Suddenly It’s Spring" on this new set. Phil Woods remains an utter master of the alto saxophone.

They are founding members of a band the notes date back to 1974, prior to which there was an unmechanically very musical Phil Woods European Rhythm Machine with Georg Gruntz, et al. The American Phil Woods Quintet (which used to be a quartet blessed with Hal Galper on piano) is still balm to the ears, Woods at 75 playing better than he did on a fairly recent (very decent) Bill Charlap CD of Gershwin material. I suspect Charlap also plays better on this one than on the Gershwin, though on neither of them does he come anywhere near disgracing himself.

Several of Gershwin's fellows are represented here, or perhaps adapted is a better word, given Lynch’s darker, slower arrangement of the opening "I Remember You", from which Woods emerges into a fresh brisk solo both the trumpeter and the pianist emulate. Perhaps adapted is not, however, a better word, since Woods is quite clear that performances in this series are based on their respective composer's original lead-sheets, with no re-harmonisation for convenience of improvising. This is much along the lines of the Charlap project.

Echoing the style developed seventy years back around Frankie Newton (a singular trumpet master), Lynch has an unusual, softer-toned muted sound on "Careless", doubly a nice choice as a prime improvising vehicle and not a widely known tune: a find.

"Last Night When We Were Young" is a Woods feature, of which he has been a master for a very long time, and reminiscent perhaps more of the older tenor saxophonists than fellow-altoists. There’s a depth and fullness of sound he achieves and sustains when there’s no urgency about delivering hot at speed. It’s always been interesting the way the layers of the unique sound melt into the heat of his playing faster. Especially during Charlap’s solo, "I’ll Take Romance" is distinguished by solo work phrasing across the bassist and drummer’s rhythmic patternings. There's some witty prettiness from the pianist at the end.

"Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" opens with solo trumpet over pace-making piano, playing what some people thought the great stride pianist Willie the Lion Smith called the 'voice' of the composition. Though the Lion was pronouncing 'verse' in a New Joysey accent, voice makes the point, and the Lion might well have gone for Lynch’s delivery on this one, with a vocal quality of articulation all through.

Jerome Kern’s "Yesterdays" has a slowish theme statement, and I should have mentioned before that with some attention to harmonics Woods’s saxophone and Lynch’s trumpet can together sound like more than two. Which is more eco-friendly than electronics. Then, ouch! Woods quotes an inferior and more recent tune called "Yesterday" in opening his "Yesterdays" solo after Steve Gilmore has delivered a pleasing and welcome mellow bass excursion. I liked Charlap’s own recordings, but I'm repeating myself.

There's a staccato opening to the theme-statement on "Come Rain or Come Shine", and again nice part-writing to make the band sound bigger. Bill Goodwin drops a little hand-grenade with his drum-kit before Charlap is into his solo, and the nicely nagging Charlie Parkerisms Woods incorporates in his adventure proceed over a beautifully flowing walked bass. These things happen in the course of thirty-three-year musical associations. Quite how these guys could play the Michel Legrand "Watch What Happens" will be a mystery to anybody who recognizes the crass quotes. How could they keep their faces straight? As for jokes, sometimes the older and badder are the best.


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