Phil Woods: Ballads & Blues, Live at the Jazz Showcase, The Children's Suite

Greg Thomas By

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Phil Woods Quintet
Ballads & Blues
Venus Records

The Bob Lark/Phil Woods Quintet
Live at the Jazz Showcase
Jazzed Media

Phil Woods
The Children's Suite
Jazzed Media

Alto saxophonist Phil Woods is a consummate musician whose mastery of improvisation is second to none. He extends from the holy alto trinity—Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Charlie Parker—and has carved a distinctive, influential style. If Paul Desmond's sound is akin to a dry martini, Woods' is like high-grade cognac, sensual and luxurious, burnished with virile delight that warms your body.

His apprenticeship with Charlie Barnet, Dizzy Gillespie, Gerry Mulligan, Quincy Jones, Oliver Nelson, Buddy Rich, Thelonious Monk and Clark Terry prepared him for leadership, especially of his quartets and quintets, which, over the past 30+ years, have included bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin. The three recordings here feature these rhythm section stalwarts, who provide sympathetic support for Woods in any context.

Ballads & Blues celebrates compositions by Billy Strayhorn and Duke Ellington (as well as one by Hoagy Carmichael). Trumpeter Brian Lynch, a member of Woods' quintet since 1992, is a good foil for the alto legend, as on Carmichael's "How Little We Know". Lynch's solo is a model of tasteful note selection and his unison lines with Woods blend perfectly. Bill Charlap's solo rendition of "Lush Life" has a tender, precise quality, which epitomizes his attitude in Woods' ensemble for 14 years. The band sways with a tinge of sadness on "Blood Count" and swings "Johnny Come Lately" with optimism.

Live at the Jazz Showcase has Jim McNeely (who held the piano chair in Woods' group from 1990-95) and the co-leader of the date, Bob Lark, on flugelhorn. Lark, director of DePaul University's Jazz Studies Program in Chicago, contributes three good tunes to the session. On the hip, mid-tempo opener "Ravenswood," Lark takes a sure solo with shades of Clark Terry influence, whereas Woods builds slowly, stretching out references to the melody into a full-throated blues with a dash of double-time. The Latin-tinged "Mad Dan's" finds Woods sprinting from the gate and sprinkling his improv with allusions, such as the opening phrases of Dizzy Gillespie's "Be Bop".

On all his recordings, Woods stars yet leaves room for his fellow musicians to shine. This generosity holds especially true for The Children's Suite, inspired by the verses of AA Milne's Now We Are Six. Milne, famous for the Winnie the Pooh series, wrote for the child in us all and Woods' writing talents are on full display as a big band (with strings) swings with whimsical fancy to engage young and old. English actor Peter Dennis and singers Vicki Doney and Bob Dorough (of "School House Rock" fame) are marvelous in their vocal renditions of the text. The suite captures the varying moods of youth, as the music is by turns mock-serious, hopeful, bittersweet, circus-like or giddy. Woods employs mainstream jazz, classical and even rock styles and displays almost as much chops with his pencil as with his horn.

Tracks and Personnel

Ballads & Blues

Tracks: Blood Count; Flower is a Lovesome Thing; Balcony Serenade; Isfahan; Ballad Medley: I Didn't Know About You, Lotus Blossom, Don't You Know I Care; How Little We Know; Ballad For Very Tired and Very Sad Lotus Eaters; Lush Life; My Little Brown Book; Rain Check; Jonny Come Lately; Take the A Train

Personnel: Phil Woods: alto sax; Brian Lynch: trumpet; Bill Charlap: piano; Steve Gilmore: bass; Bill Goodwin: drums

Live at the Jazz Showcase

Tracks: Ravenswood; Mad Dan's; Cathy's Song; All Blues; Everytime We Say Goodbye; What is This Thing Called Love

Personnel: Phil Woods: alto sax; Bob Lark: flugelhorn; Jim McNeely: piano; Steve Gilmore: bass; Bill Goodwin: drums

The Children's Suite

Tracks: The Good Little Girl; Come Out with Me; Sneezles; Pinkle Purr; Down by the Pond; Waiting at the Window; Buttercup Days; The Friend & Us To; Furry Bear; Knight-in-Armour; Wind on the Hill & The Engineer; Solitude; The Morning Walk; In the Dark & The End

Personnel: Phil Woods: Conductor, alto saxophone; Vicki Doney: vocals; Bob Dorough: vocals, keyboards; Peter Dennis: Narrator; Nelson Hill: alto sax, flute; Tom Hamilton: tenor sax, clarinet; Roger Rosenberg: baritone sax and bass clarinet; Ken Brader III: trumpet, flugelhorn; Bobby Routch: french horn, flugelhorn; Rick Chamberlain: trombone; Eric Doney: piano; Mark Williams: guitar; Steve Gilmore: bass; Bill Goodwin: drums; Paul Peabody: violin; Joanna Farrer: violin; Juliet Heffner: violin; Mary Wooten: cello

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