The self-produced I Remember Woody was put together by educator, composer, and musician John LaPorta in honor of his former employer, the famed big band leader Woody Herman. If there ever was an independently produced recording that cried out for broader distribution, this is the one. Firmly conventional without being stodgy, traditionally swinging without being boring, I Remember Woody is a mainstream dream with a swing fan’s heart. In his liner notes, LaPorta conjures the names of Ellington, Basie, and Herman in the same breath.
This brings up a bias of mine. Within the realms of swing and jazz, I have never equated Glenn Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw, Tommy Dorsey, Woody Herman, Duke Ellington, or Count Basie. In the modern day vernacular, I found Miller too pop-oriented to take as seriously as Ellington or Basie (who always felt more authentic). Goodman was one of the first to defy the musical Jim Crow, but still lacked that undefinable element so much in evidence in Ellington or Basie’s bands.
Woody Herman, with his West Coast sensibilities, always seemed to stand apart from all other big band leaders. Herman and his Herds took more creative chances than Glenn Miller or the Dorsey Brothers. Along with Billy Eckstine and Jay McShann’s big bands, his groups incorporated bebop elements into the big band book.
This adventuresome spirit is what is celebrated on I Remember Woody. Clarinet/tenor saxophonist LaPorta assembled a quintet comprised of trombonist Greg Neilsen, pianist Charles Prawdzik, bassist Gary Deary and drummer John Moore. This quintet has a very big sound. Ensemble pieces like "Four Brothers" and "Woodchopper’s Ball" sound as if played by a little big band.
By contrast, "Blue Flame," which opens the disc, is a perfect blues. LaPorta modulates through the low to mid register soloing in mostly whole and eighth notes. Gary Deary’s bass is full-bodied and resonant, complementing the excellent care exercised during mixing. Prawdzik stays relaxed and swinging throughout. While LaPorta’s tenor playing is as compelling and conservative as his clarinet playing it is his clarinet that I prefer. He has a broad warm tone very much like Herman’s. But this show is not all about LaPorta. He affords trombonist Neilsen two beautiful ballads, "Mean to Me" and "After You’ve Gone."
It is encouraging that an independently produced recording like I Remember Woody can reflect such quality and self-assurance. This writer would like to see the recording picked up and distributed, as it deserves to be.