by Ian Mann
August 19, 2020
The playing is excellent throughout and I’m surprised that none of these musicians is better known. In their own ways each is equally impressive, with Woods also making his mark as a composer.
Alex Woods Quartet
(Stoney Lane Records SLR1993)
Alex Woods –alto saxophone, Billy Test – piano, Marty Kenney – bass, Andreas Svendsen – drums
Due for imminent release on the Birmingham based Stoney Lane record label, run by guitarist Sam Slater, this is a project that has taken a number of years to come to fruition.
Alex Woods is a Birmingham born saxophonist who graduated with honours from the Jazz Course at the city’s Conservatoire. As an exchange student he also studied at the Parisian equivalent before taking up a scholarship at the Manhattan School of Music in New York in 2013.
Woods spent what he describes as “three action packed years” living in New York and the music to be heard on “Highline” was inspired by his experiences of living, studying and working in the city, and by the people that he met there.
Woods’ tutors at the Manhattan School of Music included fellow saxophonists Rich Perry, Donny McCaslin and Dave Liebman and pianists Jim McNeeley and Garry Dial, heavyweight company indeed.
During his time in New York Woods formed a quartet with the American musicians Billy Test (piano) and Marty Kenney (bass), plus the Danish drummer Andreas Svendsen, all fellow students at the Manhattan Music School. This line up worked regularly in the city’s jazz clubs, notably at Cornelia Street Café and the Bonafide Jazz Club.
In February 2015 the quartet recorded an album of Woods’ original compositions at the Trading 8s Recording Studio in Paramus, New Jersey with Chris Sulit engineering. However it wasn’t until July 2018 that the album was mixed and mastered at Superche Studios in London by Alejandro Merola.
It was originally intended that the album would be released in 2018 and Woods and the quartet toured the music widely in the autumn of that year. I’m uncertain as to why the release was eventually put back until 2020, and even now the ongoing Corona Virus has seen further delays. The album was initially due in June but the official release date is now August 28th. Still, better late than never, and the music to be heard on “Highline” has been well worth waiting for.
It should be mentioned that Woods has not exactly been idle in the meantime as he has been working as a musician, arranger and educator on projects around the world, most notably in South East Asia (Hong Kong, Singapore and Malaysia). As a session musician he has worked with Jamie Cullum and Charlotte Church and as an arranger with Vince Mendoza, Lalah Hathaway and the Metropole Orkest from the Netherlands.
Woods is the managing director of Global Acts, an international music agency, and was also substantially involved with the Around The Houses Festival, a series of livestream events featuring Birmingham based artists that took place during the early stages of the Corona Virus lockdown.
Turning now to the music on this album, which commences with the atmospheric “Tales Told”, introduced by Svendsen at the drums, who plays with great sensitivity throughout, the subtlety and attention to detail in his playing marking him out as a skilled colourist. Woods adopts a pure tone on the alto, the clarity and slightly plaintive quality of his sound contrasting well with Test’s deeper, minor key piano sonorities. Woods takes the first solo on alto, followed by Test who now demonstrates a lighter, more lyrical side of his playing. There’s also something of a feature for Svendsen that is subtly woven into the fabric of this intriguing piece. Woods and his quartet don’t shout for your attention, but nevertheless earn it via the subtlety and quiet insistence of their playing.
“Between The Lines” is more relaxed in feel and positively breezy at times. Its briskly darting melodic motifs provide the springboard for expansive solos from Test at the piano, who positively sparkles in this context, and Woods on alto, who retains his clarity of tone whilst displaying a flawless technique and an impressive fluency. The soloists are well supported by Kenney’s propulsive bass lines and Svendsen’s neatly energetic drumming, the Dane again exhibiting a keen eye for colour and detail, whilst interacting well with his fellow musicians.
The next three pieces are titled “Suite”, parts I, II and III, although there doesn’t seem to be any overarching concept linking the three compositions.
A strong focus on melody distinguishes Woods’ writing throughout the album and “Suite I” features an attractive theme that provides the basis for the leader’s gently questing alto solo. Woods probes deeply into the heart of the tune, his explorations underpinned by Svendsen’s insistent Latin inflected drum groove. A passage of unaccompanied piano follows, succeeded in turn by a loosely structured but highly atmospheric conversation between the members of the quartet, prior to a final restatement of the opening theme.
The impressionistic “Suite II” commences with the richly evocative sounds of glacial piano, brushed drums and grainy arco bass. Test reaches into the interior of the piano to produce sounds and timbres reminiscent of oriental music. A passage of solo piano then returns us to the European classical tradition. Pennsylvania born Test is a highly versatile pianist who has worked in a variety of musical genres, including jazz, classical, blues and pop. Interestingly Woods sits out this second movement of his suite entirely.
“Suite III” is more obviously in the mainstream of the jazz tradition, yet still sounds thoroughly contemporary. Introduced by Test at the piano it wears its complexities lightly as it evolves into something of a feature for the leader on alto, followed by the consistently excellent Svendsen at the drums, who delivers some of his most powerful playing of the set.
“Clouds” is a kind of contemporary jazz ballad that features Woods at his most reflective and Test at his most lyrical. However their solos see both musicians gently moving up through the gears, varying their approach and subtly building the momentum. Kenney also steps forward with a delightfully melodic double bass solo.
It’s Kenney who introduces “Slow Walkers”, the title a subtle reference to the part his bass plays in a composition that tips its hat to the jazz styles of the past, and particularly Blue Note style hard bop. Fuelled by Kenney’s sturdy bass walk Test and Woods take the opportunity to stretch out with expansive and engaging solos, while Svendsen remains a busy, galvanising presence throughout.
“Testing The Waters”, the title presumably a pun on the name of the group’s pianist, also pays homage to styles of the past, whilst remaining thoroughly contemporary. This time round the quartet evoke the head on intensity of bebop with Test delivering a solo that combines a percussive urgency with great fluency. Woods follows, here soloing with a slippery, quicksilver fluency rooted in the style of Charlie Parker. His solo is followed by a brief collective pause for breath, followed by a fleeting reprise of the opening bebop inspired motif.
The album concludes with the aptly named “Lullaby”, a shimmering rubato style ballad featuring the soft cry of Woods’ alto, the gentle ripple of Test’s piano chording and the rustle and rumble of Svendsen’s brushes and mallets, all underpinned by Kenney’s bass.
It’s been a long time coming but “Highline” has been worth the wait. With its blend of European and American influences it’s an interesting record. Some of the pieces wouldn’t sound out of place on an ECM recording and there’s a strong melodic sensibility throughout, allied to a similar feel for colour, fine detail and texture.
That said the spirit of New York permeates Woods’ writing, which is subtly complex and infused with a subtle New York inspired edge. On tunes such as “Slow Walkers” and “Testing The Waters”, which both draw on US jazz styles of the past the American influence really takes hold, with a corresponding rise in the energy levels.
The standard of the playing is excellent throughout and I’m surprised that none of these musicians is better known, in their own ways each is equally impressive, with Woods also making his mark as a composer of some substance. The leader’s sound and style on alto sometimes reminds me of that of Will Vinson, another British born musician who has made a big impression in New York.
I have really enjoyed listening to “Highline” and now regret missing out on Woods’ 2018 tour. Hopefully he will eventually get the chance to take this music out on the road again once more.
In the meantime audiences are encouraged to check out this highly accomplished début recording.
“Highline” is available via the Stoney Lane Records website http://www.stoneylane.netblog comments powered by Disqus