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Extended Analysis

Phil Woods: Unheard Herd

By Published: March 12, 2006
Phil Woods
Unheard Herd
Jazzed Media

As a reviewer, I am privileged to receive and hear a veritable boatload of albums from big bands all over the world, but Unheard Herd has done something none of those others could — it has actually made me feel young again. Listening to alto saxophonist Phil Woods and the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra masterfully redesign such classics as "Keen and Peachy, "Yardbird Suite, "More Moon and others, I was taken back, as if on a magic carpet of sound, to an incomparable era when big bands ruled the land and Woody Herman's thundering Herds commanded a place of honor among the kings of the hill.

I can almost picture the old Woodchopper himself standing in front of this turbo-charged ensemble, clarinet in one hand, counting off the tempo, pumping his fist, stomping his feet and urging it on as he had his beloved Herds for more than half a century. No one loved or appreciated a swinging band more than Woody, and this one would have pleased him no end, especially with the great Phil Woods as its featured soloist. That's a luxury Woody never had while he was still with us, and there's a pretty good reason why. Woody used the groundbreaking "four brothers sound (three tenors, one baritone), and as he played alto as well as clarinet, there was never room for another alto on any of the Herds. Had there been, I've a hunch that Woods, a longtime admirer of big bands in general and Woody in particular, may have jumped at the chance. As if to make up for lost time, Phil blows up a storm with the makeshift Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra, which one could call a "pick-up band if that weren't an insult to the phenomenal group of sidemen assembled on relatively short notice for this live recording date by trumpeter Ron Stout.

The LAJO isn't always letter-perfect but that's no drawback, as what emerges is a whiff of the freedom and spontaneity that once were a hallmark of Jazz concerts in which everyone blew with reckless abandon and let the chips fall where they may. That exuberance bursts forth immediately on the free-wheeling opener, Ralph Burns / Shorty Rogers' bop classic, "Keen and Peachy ("Fine and Dandy ), and enhances every other number through the rapid-fire finale, "Boomsie, co-written by Conte Candoli, Frank Socolow and Chubby Jackson and arranged by Rogers. Shorty also wrote "More Moon ("How High the Moon ), whose 1949 recording featured a memorable tenor solo by the legendary Gene Ammons, while Gerry Mulligan's groovy arrangement of Charlie Parker's "Yardbird Suite was written for but never recorded by Woody's Second Herd.

Rogers is represented as well by "Man, Don't Be Ridiculous, a breezy exercise for Woods' sinuous alto that was written originally to showcase baritone saxophonist Serge Chaloff, and "We the People Bop, performed by a smaller group from within the LAJO and enlivened by trumpeter Carl Saunders' zany, off-the-wall scat singing. The full ensemble is heard on "The Great Lie, a lithe swinger written by Andy Gibson and Cab Calloway, while Woods and pianist Ross Tompkins are alone together on an amorous reading of Sam Coslow / Arthur Johnston's "My Old Flame. "More Moon is preceded by Woods' four-minute monologue on "humor in Jazz, "Boomsie by Stout's two-minute take on "playing the blues . . . fast! in which he reminisces about the perils involved in facing down one of Woody's signature smokers, "Caldonia.

While Woods is the undeniable headliner and swings like there's no tomorrow, setting the bar high every time the horn touches his lips, this is hardly a one-man show. The LAJO houses a squadron of stellar soloists who keep Woods on his toes and the audience on the edge of their seats. Besides Stout, Saunders and Tompkins, they include tenors Jerry Pinter, Keith Bishop and Bill Trujillo, trombonists Scott Whitfield and Andy Martin, trumpeter Bob Summers, bass trombonit Bryant Byers, clarinetist Kim Richmond and baritone Bob Carr. Pretty good pick-up band, eh? The rhythm section (Tompkins, bassist Joel Hamilton, drummer Dave Tull) is splendid, even though I missed Don Lamond's trademark punch, especially on "Keen and Peachy (listen to the original).

This is a marvelous concert, one that I'm sure Woody himself would have loved and applauded. Everyone is loose and having a ball, which is the way America's one true indigenous art form should be played. For fans of big-band Jazz, it doesn't get much better than this.

Track Listing: Keen and Peachy; The Great Lie; Man, Don't Be Ridiculous; Yardbird Suite; My Old Flame; We the People Bop; Comments by Phil Woods (humor in Jazz); More Moon; Comments by Ron Stout (Playing the blues... fast!); Boomsie (59:10).

Personnel: Phil Woods, alto saxophone, with the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra Directed by Ron Stout— Stout, Carl Saunders, Mike McGuffey, Frank Szabo, Bob Summers, trumpet; Kim Richmond, alto sax, clarinet; Bill Trujillo, Keith Bishop, Jerry Pinter, tenor sax; Bob Carr, baritone sax; Andy Martin, Scott Whitfield, trombone; Bryant Byers, bass trombone; Ross Tompkins, piano; Joel Hamilton, bass; Dave Tull, drums.

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