Woods’ writing is colourful, imaginative and inventive and the way in which he brings his various influences together to create a seamless whole is frequently masterful.
Tony Woods Project
(Marquetry Records MR940)
“Hidden Fires” is the fourth album recording by the Tony Woods Project, a quintet led by saxophonist and composer Tony Woods.
First formed in 1997 the Project has been a semi-regular working ensemble which has toured frequently and released the albums “High Seas” (1997), “Lowlands” (2004) and “Wind Shadows” (2009). The personnel of the group has remained stable throughout with Woods playing a variety of reeds alongside Mike Outram (electric guitar), Rob Millett (vibes, marimba), Andy Hamill (double bass) and Milo Fell (drums, percussion).
I first discovered the Project’s music in 2009 when I reviewed the “Wind Shadows” album and enjoyed a live performance by the group at Café Jazz in Cardiff shortly afterwards, with Martin Pyne depping for Millett and Dave Manington for Hamill. I also took the opportunity of investigating the quintet’s equally impressive back catalogue at this time.
It’s been quite a while but it’s good to have the Project back with their distinctive blend of jazz that convincingly merges conventional jazz virtues with elements of folk and world music. Woods’ writing skilfully combines these different strands to create music with a strong pictorial, almost cinematic, quality. Every piece tells a story – and tells it convincingly.
The members of the Project are all busy, in demand musicians which helps to explain the lengthy time lapses between the albums. Since “Wind Shadows” Woods himself has recorded (and sometimes toured) with the Avalon Trio, Michael Garrick’s Lyric Ensemble and Kwartet, the latter co-led by Woods and fellow saxophonist Tim Whitehead.
The Project’s albums often have a loose conceptual theme, often inspired by the elements, and this time around it’s “fire”, a word that informs a number of the tune titles. But there are other themes too, as will become clear in the track by track analysis.
The album commences with “Queen Takes Knight” which begins with the shimmer of vibes, the rustle of percussion and the gentle needling of Outram’s guitar. Eventually Hamill’s bass motif acts as the bedrock for Woods’ theme statement and subsequent solo on sinuous soprano sax. He’s followed by Millett at the vibes, who solos with a cool, lyrical elegance. This is a melodic, evocative opener that acts as a welcome reminder of the quintet’s signature sound after an eight year absence.
Fell’s drums introduce the twelve minute “Igneous Rock” which initially presents a more forceful side of the band with a busy intro featuring Woods and Millet trading darting sax and vibraphone lines above the sound of Fell’s energetic drumming. Woods’ playing hints at Celtic and North African influences with one melody sounding akin to an Irish jig. However Woods’ writing is multi-faceted and the up-tempo passages are punctuated by slower, more atmospheric episodes featuring Millett’s vibes. The dynamic contrasts work well with Woods’ sax coming to the fore in the more energetic passages as he solos at length. Millett later solos expansively at the vibes as the pace begins to build once more.
Woods’ arrangement of the traditional tune “The Bonfire Carol” features the leader on warm toned, slightly grainy alto clarinet. It’s a slow burning, richly atmospheric adaptation underscored by Fell’s mallet rumbles and also features the liquid sound of Outram’s guitar, sounding vaguely Pink Floyd like.
The album also has something of a geological theme running through it as evidenced by the title of “Metamorphic. This begins with the delightful instrumental combination of Woods on penny whistle and Millett on marimba as folk and world elements continue to exert a profound influence on the music. This charming piece seems to draw on both Irish and African sources and also includes a melodic double bass solo from the excellent Hamill.
A third theme emerges in the titles of the next two pieces, “Gargantua” and “Pantagruel”, these being characters, mythical giants to be precise, from the writings of Rabelais. To be honest I only remembered this thanks to the Gentle Giant songs “Pantagruel’s Nativity” and “The Advent of Panurge” - from the albums “Acquiring The Taste” and “Octopus” respectively for all you prog fans out there. I still love the Giant – but I digress.
Back to matters in hand and “Gargantua” which sees Woods to moving to tenor sax on a slow burner of a piece with a brooding theme and a vaguely ominous atmosphere suggestive of the giant character who gives his name to the piece. Woods then hands over to Outram who delivers a solo of choked, simmering intensity, utilising his effects well and again sounding vaguely Floyd like, but darker. The gently rolling thunder of Fell’s drumming also adds to the threatening atmosphere while Woods’ tenor sounds even more baleful when it makes its return.
The two Rabelaisian pieces were apparently commissioned to accompany an art exhibition and “Pantagruel”, in Rabelais’ writings the son of Gargantua, follows. Woods moves to soprano for a piece that begins as a sort of dance, perhaps intended as a refection of Pantagruel’s character. The music remains playful throughout, even when the band begin to stretch out, the interlocking melody lines of Woods on soprano, Millett on vibes and Outram on guitar accompanied by the busy, merry chatter of Fell’s drums. As the melody lines become more fragmented the piece threatens to fall apart but this fate is averted with the return of the opening dance like theme which finally resolves the piece.
The title track features Woods on alto sax, generating a considerable head of steam as this folk tinged jazz composition gathers momentum, the leader’s sax cutting a swathe through the darting, intricate vibraphone patterns. The inventive Outram comes to the fore in the second half of the piece with a resourceful solo that avoids the usual jazz or rock guitar clichés. Finally there’s s reprise of the theme and something of a drum feature for Fell who tours his kit underpinned by the sound of Millett’s circling vibes motifs.
Hamill’s gently melodic double bass ushers in the closing “Firelight” which features Woods on wood flute, his mellow, folk influenced piping combining with Outram’s subtle guitar chording and Fell’s sensitively brushed drums. Hamill’s bass is at the heart of the piece, frequently taking over the melody and sharing the limelight with the leader’s flute. There’s a comforting warmth about this piece, which has been compared with a lullaby, that helps to ensure that the album ends on an elegiac, gently uplifting note.
The meticulously crafted “Hidden Fires” is a worthy addition to the canon of the Tony Woods Project. The blend of jazz, folk and world influences – and this time round I’d add elements of rock and contemporary classical music too – ensures that this is a unique and instantly recognisable band, a quality encouraged by the unusual combination of instruments.
Everybody performs well and the production and engineering skills of Woods and Millett ensure a pinpoint mix in which all the subtleties of the music can be heard and appreciated. Woods’ writing is colourful, imaginative and inventive and the way in which he brings his various influences together to create a seamless whole is frequently masterful.
There are probably some jazz purists who would scoff at this music and describe it as being twee or contrived and there’s certainly little in the way of conventional swing. But Woods is looking for much more than that and to these ears he succeeds brilliantly. It’s good to have the Tony Woods Project back.