Mike Vax Big Band / Dave Siebels / Phil Woods / London Horn Sound
And now, as John Cleese used to say on the Monty Python television series, for something (veering toward) completely different. Yes, The Children's Suite by renowned alto saxophonist Phil Woods and his Pennsylvania-based big band was inspired by the verses of A.A. Milne (creator of Christopher Robin and his furry friend, Winnie-the-Pooh); yes, there are vocals and / or narration on every number; and yes, the lyrics by Milne are especially geared to elicit a positive response from children. On the other hand, anyone who supposes that Woods' arrangements have been "dumbed down" to accommodate a younger audience will soon be disabused of that notion. This is high-grade contemporary jazz, as sharp and swinging at times as one could envision. Woods, who has spent more than four decades committing Milne's words to music, wouldn't have it any other way.
The vocals are by Vicki Doney, whose limpid little-girl voice is perfectly suited to the spirit of the enterprise, and / or veteran Bob Dorough (who doubles now and then on piano), the enchanting narratives by British actor and jazz fan Peter Dennis, who has presented his one-man show, Bother!, also based on Milne's works, in theatres throughout England and America. Without Dennis the CD might never have happened, as it was he who interceded on Woods' behalf with the Milne estate and the Walt Disney Corporation, which owns the rights to Milne's literary handiwork, and secured permission to record Woods' charts. In 2007, the orchestra was recruited from among professionals teaching at the 30th anniversary observance of the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts (COTA), an organization co-founded in 1977 by Woods and the late Ed Joubert, and recording dates were set.
It was years earlier, in 1961, on his return from a trip to Europe, that Woods happened upon his children's Milne books and said to himself, "These would make great songs." As he usually is, Woods was squarely on the mark, and the 14 selections on The Children's Suite are bright and charming, as are his tasteful arrangements, several using a four-piece string section, the others a more conventional big band format. Besides Woods (dig his deep but uncredited footprints on the jaunty "Morning Walk") and Dorough (electric piano on "Pinkle Purr"), the admirable soloists include alto Nelson Hill, tenor Tom Hamilton, baritone Roger Rosenberg, trumpeter Ken Brader, trombonist Rick Chamberlain, guitarist Mark Williams, bassist Steve Gilmore and Vicki Doney's husband, pianist Eric Doney (dazzling on "Furry Bear" and "Solitude").
So is The Children's Suite for children? The simplest answer is, yes and no. Or to put it another way, the album should please children of all ages (even those who are fully grown). Woods has seen to that. The suite is one part whimsy, one part wisdom, one part virtuosity, one part lyricism, and last but not least, one part sophisticated big-band jazz. That should be enough to please almost anyone. And with Woods as kingpin and catalyst, one may rest assured that there's no shrinkage in the area of quality control.
London Horn Sound Big Band
Give It One
Here's an intriguing concept for a big band: French horns and rhythm. Nothing else; that's it. We're not talking about two or three French horns ("Freedom horns," as the Bush administration would have renamed them) here but as many as six to 16 at a time, accompanied by piano, bass and drums, in a program that includes jazz and popular standards as well as a number of original compositions by the horn players themselves.
Where do all those horns come from? Simply put, from symphony orchestras and institutions of higher learning. And why jazz? Well, why not? Even though the French horn is seldom looked upon as an integral part of improvised music, a number of players have managed to earn reputations as credible jazz performers, starting with Julius Watkins and including John Clark, Thomas Varner, Adam Unsworth and a few others. The London Horn Sound Big Band, conducted by Geoffrey Simon, numbers horn virtuosos who have or are presently playing with some of the UK's most celebrated orchestras including the London Symphony, BBC Symphony, the London and Royal Philharmonics, the London Chamber Orchestra, the Academy of Ancient Music, Academy of St. Martin in the Field, the English Concert, Royal Opera House Covent Garden and London Festival, among others. Gwilym Simcock is an award-winning pianist who leads three of his own groups, has backed an array of well-known artists from Dave Holland and Lee Konitz to Bob Mintzer and Norma Winstone, and happens to double on French horn (on which he solos on his own composition, "Blues for Hughie").