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Andrew Woodhead

Swing You Sinners

by Ian Mann

May 29, 2024


What comes across throughout this recording is how much fun Woodhead and the band had as they re-imagined these early jazz tunes for the 21st century.

Andrew Woodhead

“Swing You Sinners”

(Leker Records)

Andrew Woodhead – piano, George Crowley – tenor sax, Sam Wooster – trumpet, Nick Jurd – double bass, Jeff Williams – drums

Originally from Sheffield, pianist Andrew Woodhead, born in 1990, is a graduate of the Jazz Course at Birmingham Conservatoire and has since settled in the city, becoming an important presence on the Birmingham jazz and improvised music scene.

He has appeared regularly on the Jazzmann web pages, featuring in bands led by vocalist Anthony Marsden, saxophonist Claude Pietersen (the quintet Zwolfton) and as a member of the trio Snapdragon featuring vocalist Holly Thomas and reeds player Lluis Mather. Other musicians with whom he has worked include trombonist Richard Foote,  trumpeters, Percy Pursglove and Kim Macari, saxophonist Paul Dunmall,  violinist Sarah Farmer, cellist Hannah Marshall, bassists Olie Brice, Trevor Lines and Si Paton and drummers Mark Sanders, Luke Allatson and Andrew Bain. 

During his student days Woodhead appeared at the annual Birmingham / Trondheim Jazz Exchange event at Cheltenham Jazz Festival. Out of this grew a collaboration between the duo ELDA (Woodhead and trumpeter Aaron Diaz) and the Norwegian vocalist Kari Eskild Havenstrom.  This trio recorded the album “Shiny/Things”, released in early 2019. Review here;

The ELDA duo regularly collaborate with other musicians and have also recorded the EPs “Hippocampinae”  with saxophonist Faye MacCalman,  “A Different Name For The Same River” with trumpeter Sam Wooster and bassist Chris Mapp and “Live at BEAST” with synthesiser player / vocalist Georgia Denham. These works, together with further collaborations with guitarist Anton Hunter, electronic musician John Derek Bishop and  analogue synth specialist Meesha Fones are gathered together as part of a seven disc box set “Collaborations 2020 – 2022” which is reviewed here;

As a solo artist Woodhead has released the albums “Pocket Piano Improvisations” (2016) and the ambitious and impressive “Pendulums” (2021). Subtitled “Music for Bellringers, Improvisers & Electronics” the “Pendulums” project represents a major work for Woodhead and the album is reviewed here;

“Waves II”, an installation that represented a spin-off from the “Pendulums” project formed part of the 2023 Cheltenham Jazz Festival. A live performance utilising the installation under the direction of Woodhead appears as part of our Festival coverage here.

Woodhead has also performed in a duo setting with his partner, saxophonist, flautist and clarinettist Alicia Gardener-Trejo. The couple also work together in the trio Bobhowler, a project with theremin player Tom Mills, with whom they recorded the album “Figures” in 2019. 

Woodhead has also been commissioned as a composer by Lancaster Jazz Festival.

In addition to his work as a musician Woodhead is also a promoter and event organiser, one of the movers and shakers of the vibrant Birmingham jazz and improvised music scene. Fizzle is a regular series of jazz and improvised music events held at various venues around Birmingham and is co-ordinated by Woodhead and saxophonist Lee Griffiths, the pair also working closely with promoter Tony Dudley-Evans of TDE Promotions. Between them Fizzle and TDEP provide a valuable platform for the more adventurous strands of jazz and improvised music in Birmingham and the wider West Midlands area.

In early 2020, together with violinist Sarah Farmer,  Woodhead was one of the driving forces behind the Ideas of Noise Festival, a celebration of experimental music that took place at various venues across the West Midlands. All of the planned events were able to take place before the first Covid lockdown. The “Pendulums” project was first conceived as a part of Ideas of Noise 2020. Previous ION Festivals had taken place in 2015 and 2018.

Released on Woodhead’s own Leker record label “Swing You Sinners” sees the pianist leading an all star quintet of Birmingham and London based musicians as they take a modern, free jazz approach to a selection of material from the early days of jazz that is more commonly played in a ‘trad’ style.

On his Bandcamp page Woodhead describes the album thus;
“Swing You Sinners is inspired by the collectivism heard in the early jazz recordings of Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and Cab Calloway, and how these tunes can be brought kicking and screaming into the 21st century by a group of forward-thinking improvisers. Born out of a love of Fleischer Studios’ dark, surreal animations which captured the spirit of depression-era New York City, the band revels in the same sense of anarchy and the joy of creativity which these animators first showed to the world in the late 20’s and 30’s”.

It’s an approach that has attracted the label “rad trad” and which has invited comparisons to the work of Pigfoot, the quartet led by former Loose Tubes trumpeter Chris Batchelor.

“Swing You Sinners” was recorded live in January 2023 at that celebrated Birmingham jazz venue The Spotted Dog in Digbeth and commences with a segue of the Cab Calloway song “Minnie the Moocher”  and Jimmy McHugh’s “Emaline”. As with Pigfoot the tunes are instantly recognisable, but that doesn’t stop Woodhead and the band taking outrageous liberties with them. But for all that their love for their source material shines through, no matter how far they may push the envelope. Wooster’s vocalised trumpet carries the melody at the start of “Minnie”, taking us back to New Orleans. Crowley’s raucous tenor then takes over but before too long we’re heading some place else as the horns begin to scream at each other and Woodhead introduces an element of wilful dissonance. The pianist then embarks on a loosely structured solo with the group now in piano trio mode. Wooster then returns, followed by Crowley, the saxophonist subsequently stretching at length as the quintet embark on some serious collective improvisation. Wooster follows on trumpet, his playing filtering the sound of New Orleans through a more contemporary prism. Eventually the piece resolves itself more quietly around the theme of “Emaline”.

The quintet have yet more fun with another Calloway tune, “The Old Man of the Mountain”, which is given an energetic reading featuring some raucous trumpet and tenor exchanges above a roiling forest of rhythm. Woodhead eventually emerges with a piano solo, shadowed by the fluid rhythms of Jurd and Williams. Bassist Jurd is also featured as a soloist, first in a dialogue with Williams and then completely alone. The individual features are well received by the audience before the familiar theme eventually returns.

The Victor Herbert tune “Indian Summer” forms part of an eleven minute segue with Slim Gaillard’s “Flat Foot Floogie”. A gentle introduction teams Wooster’s trumpet with Jurd’s bass, with Crowley’s tenor subsequently added. Piano and brushed drums are added as Wooster solos more expansively, playing with great fire and fluency. The music becomes looser as Crowley takes over on tenor, stretching out above Woodhead’s turbulent piano chording and Williams’ ever evolving rhythmic flow. Woodhead then solos at length, unaccompanied at first, but then in piano trio mode. Following “Pendulums” it’s good to be reminded of Woodhead’s talents as an acoustic piano soloist. The horns then combine on the Gaillard tune, helping to bring the performance to a rousing conclusion.

A segue of “The Song is Ended” and “Eventide” begins in piano trio mode, with the musicians playing in a loosely structured manner and with Jurd making use of the bow. Tantalising snatches of melody lead to the eventual emergence of the theme, this acting as the platform for some more full on improvising featuring Crowley’s powerful tenor sax soloing. Woodhead’s piano solo initially cools things down again, but he’s soon stoking the fires himself with an increasingly exuberant solo, spurred on by Williams’ propulsive drumming.  Dynamic contrasts are a feature of this music and a gentler piano led section marks the transition into the next tune with Wooster’s New Orleans inspired trumpet coming to the fore, the spirit of Louis Armstrong very much present during the course of his increasingly ebullient solo. This is eventually followed by a quieter conclusion.

Bowed bass, piano and vocalised trumpet are amongst the sounds that introduce “I Learned About Love From Her”, which develops into a kind of wonky New Orleans street march that incorporates some feisty and garrulous interplay between the horns.

Closer “Mop Mop” emerges from piano, bass and drums to embrace some riotous group interplay with Crowley soloing powerfully above the breakneck rhythms generated by Woodhead, Jurd and Williams. Wooster than takes over with a similarly bravura trumpet solo. The irrepressible Williams, a driving force throughout, is then featured with a volcanic drum solo.

What comes across throughout this recording is how much fun Woodhead and the band had as they re-imagined these early jazz tunes for the 21st century. Whoops of delight can be heard throughout, and I’m pretty sure those are coming from the band members, although the audience certainly seemed to enjoy it too!

The quintet certainly take these tunes to some interesting places and the standard of the playing is excellent throughout with Crowley and Wooster delivering some blistering horn solos while the rhythm section play with great skill and vitality with Williams a driving force throughout and Jurd a similarly propulsive presence behind the bass. Woodhead is also an essential component of the rhythm team but also features as an inventive piano soloist.

Those that were in the audience on the night must have absolutely loved it and it would have been nice to have been there. Nevertheless engineer Luke Morrish-Thomas does an excellent job of capturing the excitement of the evening, whilst also ensuring that each instrumentalist is heard at his best. A refreshing new take on the sounds of early jazz – rad trad indeed!

“Swing You Sinners” can be purchased here;

See also;




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