Phil Woods has been such an imposing presence on the Jazz scene for so many years that one hesitates to say he is now at the height of his creative powers — but it is hard to imagine him playing any better than he does on this marvelous concert date recorded a scant five years ago with Germany’s world–class SWR Big Band. Besides giving an alto saxophone clinic on eight of the nine selections and playing clarinet on the other (“Sweet Lorraine”), Woods composed seven of the songs, all of which the SWRBB enunciates as if they’d been written in its native tongue. Completing the program is a snappy rendition of Ann Ronell’s well–known standard, “Willow Weep for Me,” on which Phil’s caustic alto shares center stage with Karl Farrent’s lissome trumpet. This consistently pleasurable performance is remindful of another of my cherished albums, Boss Brass and Woods, wherein Phil is paired with valve tombonist Rob McConnell’s stylish Canadian ensemble. Although the SWR uses no French horns, it is in no respect overshadowed by its Canadian counterpart — nor by any other big band, for that matter. As for Woods, he’s in superior form on both dates, making it all but impossible to choose between them. Luckily, we don’t have to, as both are safeguarded on disc for the foreseeable future. Good as BB&W is, Jazz Matinee may be even better, thanks in part to Woods’ radiant compositions — the boldly swinging “Serpent’s Tooth,” the buttery–smooth “My Man Benny” (for Benny Carter), the impassioned “Quill” (for longtime sidekick and fellow alto master Gene Quill), the mellow “Alvin G.” (for tenor man Al Cohn), the light–hearted “Reet’s Neet” (inscribed for Rita Goodwin, the ex–wife of Phil’s drummer, Bill Goodwin) and the no–holds–barred closing theme, “How’s Your Mama?” Besides Farrent, who’s also heard on “Serpent’s Tooth,” “Reet’s Neet” and “Mama,” the SWR’s resourceful soloists include pianist Klaus Wagenleiter, altos Klaus Graf and Bernd Rabe, tenor Peter Weniger, drummer Jörg Gebhardt and bassist Henning Sieverts. We're only three months into 2001, and already it looks to be another banner year for big bands, foreign and domestic. Here's another treasure to add to the storehouse.
Personnel: Bernd Rabe, Axel Kuhn, alto sax; Peter Weniger, Andreas Maile, tenor sax; Reiner Heute, baritone sax; Thomas Vogel, Lubomir Rezanina, Karl Farrent, Rudolf Reindl, trumpet; Ernst Hutter, Ludwig Nuss, Ian Cumming, Georg Maus, trombone; Klaus Wagenleiter, piano; Henning Sieverts, bass; J