by Ian Mann
October 28, 2021
A distinctive, intelligent, and often beautiful brand of contemporary jazz, borrowing from a range of musical genres, but with the emphasis on atmosphere and beauty.
Andrew Woolf – tenor saxophone, Joe Auckland – trumpet, Rob Updegraff – guitar, Dave Manington – double bass, Simon Roth – drums
Andrew Woolf is a London based saxophonist, clarinettist and educator who is active across a variety of musical genres, ranging from jazz and free improvisation through Brazilian music, specifically choro, and Afrobeat.
Originally classically trained he studied at Oxford University and at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London. He is now a teacher of music himself with a busy teaching schedule and is also a qualified integrative arts psychotherapist.
His main creative outlet is his quintet, which lines up as above and places its emphasis on Woolf’s own compositions and arrangements.
He is also part of the London based choro quintet Alvorado, which released its début album “First Light” in 2019. Choro Matiz explores similar musical territory and is a duo featuring Woolf on saxes and clarinet and Jonathan Preiss on seven string guitar. Woolf’s duo with electric guitarist Ryan Williams investigates more ambient territory, incorporating electronics into the pair’s compositions, arrangements and improvisations.
Woolf’s début recording came in 2008 with the release of an EP by the band Soma Quartet, featuring Woolf on reeds, Joe Auckland on trumpet and flugel, Ryan Williams on electric guitar and Will Collier on double bass. A digital version of this recording is still available via Bandcamp.
Woolf has also recorded with guitarist and composer Andrew Button’s Button Band and with the Madwort Saxophone Quartet led by saxophonist Tom Ward. He also appears on “Mirrors”, the 2013 album for Edition Records by the London Vocal Project featuring vocalist Norma Winstone and the late, great trumpeter and composer Kenny Wheeler.
In 2014 Woolf was a member of the London based Afrik Bawantu ensemble and appeared on the album “Life On The Street”, featuring Afrik Bawantu with the Ghanaian percussionist and vocalist Afia Sackey.
First released in June 2021 “Song Unsung” brings the various strands of Woolf’s music making together, subtly incorporating Brazilian, African and Indian influences within a contemporary jazz framework. Flowing melodies combine with odd meter grooves and more abstract ambient passages to create an atmospheric blend of contemporary jazz that is made even more distinctive by its relatively unusual instrumental line up. The programme features six substantial original compositions by Woolf plus his arrangement of “Miragem De Inae” a contemporary Brazilian song by the songwriters Anna Paes and Iara Ferreira.
Woolf dedicates the opening track “Trieste” to “the memories of a special holiday”. It’s introduced by Roth at the kit, the splash and crash of the cymbals and the rumble of toms simulating the breaking of waves on the beach. Following this dramatic and atmospheric intro the piece builds slowly and organically, with the blend of the leader’s tenor with Auckland’s trumpet particularly effective and distinctive. Woolf takes the first solo, relaxed and unhurried, quietly distilling his thoughts and expressing his ideas. Manington and Roth provide sympathetic rhythmic support with the drummer excelling in his role as colourist. Auckland subsequently takes over on trumpet, his solo recalling the cool elegance of Kenny Wheeler, the latter an influence on Woolf’s writing.
Guitarist Updegraff is a particularly distinctive component of the quintet, underpinning the horn solos with his subtle but inventive chording before emerging to deliver his own quietly eloquent solo. Woolf has also mentioned the influence of Paul Motian, Lee Konitz and Joe Lovano, all musicians who have been associated with the ECM label, and it’s probably fair to say that this opening track would sound very much at home if released on the ECM imprint.
Woolf saw Anna Paes perform the song “Miragem De Inae” at a concert in Rio de Janeiro and “couldn’t get it out of my head afterwards”. His arrangement for the quintet retains some of Paes’ guitar patterns and there are traces of Brazilian rhythms in the performance. Nevertheless the quintet deliver the song in their own broodingly lyrical style, it certainly doesn’t sound conventionally ‘Brazilian’. The blend of tenor / trumpet / guitar again beguiles while Manington and Roth continue to supply both rhythm and colour. Auckland is featured extensively, playing with a fluent mix of tenderness and toughness that recalls Miles Davis. Updegraff’s guitar atmospherics complement his playing well, before the music enters into a more freely structured passage with the leader’s tenor now coming to the fore. The horns then combine to restate Paes’ theme and the piece resolves itself with a gentle coda.
“Sway”, not to be confused with the standard, is a Woolf original. It’s a piece that the composer describes as coming to him “very naturally” and there is much pleasure to be had in listening to it gently unfold with Auckland, Updegraff and Woolf all delivering thoughtful solos above its irregular rhythmic meters. At one point during Woolf’s solo the group is pared down to a duo of just tenor sax and double bass. Woolf and Manington have also worked together in the Button Band and have clearly developed a very high level of rapport.
“Skyward” offers an increase in energy levels, slowly emerging out of a swirling melodic motif to encompass a powerful solo from Updegraff, who makes good use of his range of effects. Woolf brought the guitarist in to bring some rough edges and additional colours and textures to the music and he and Updegraff enjoy a spirited dialogue here, later joined in a three way exchange by Auckland, as Roth’s busy, powerful drumming and Manington’s anchoring bass drive it all along.
“Twenty Years Ago” was one of the earliest tunes written by Woolf and it remained untitled for almost two decades before being immortalised on this recording. It’s easy to see why its composer is still so fond of it, with a beautiful melody helping to ensure that it is one of his most direct and beguiling pieces. It provides a spotlight for Manington the soloist, whose double bass feature is both hugely dexterous and highly melodic. Auckland subsequently solos on trumpet and then combines effectively with the leader’s tenor on this most effective of themes.
The lengthy “Paradise” borrows from Woolf’s Afrobeat experiences and is the most upbeat tune on the album. Buoyed by a lightly skipping rhythmic groove the piece features some fine ensemble playing in addition to the inspired soloing of the versatile and inventive Updegraff on guitar and Auckland on trumpet, with Woolf finally digging in on tenor.
The album concludes with the title track, inspired by a poem written by the Indian author Rabindranath Tagore. In an interview with jazz author Debbie Burke Woolf explains;
“’Song Unsung’ is a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, which really resonated with me when I first encountered it several years ago. I wrote a few chords in response to it, which then became the basis for a collective improvisation, as you hear it on the album. I wanted to try to express the essence of the poem, which is about longing, waiting and uncertainty. Compositionally it’s very simple and open, with just a general planned arc to it.”
Musically the piece builds from a sombre but beautiful introduction, initially sans drums, to a powerful and resonant climax, this followed by a gently atmospheric coda. There are no solos and the overall mood is tightly focussed, with the collective emphasis on atmosphere and beauty rather than the free for all of much free improv.
Woolf regards the Soma Quartet EP as being the precursor for this recording and his solo début has therefore been a long time in coming. However on the evidence of these seven excellent pieces its been well worth the wait. “Song Unsung” features a distinctive, intelligent, and often beautiful brand of contemporary jazz, borrowing from a range of musical genres, but with the emphasis on atmosphere and beauty. The quintet impress as an ensemble but there are also many fine individual moments.
Some may find it all a little bloodless and lacking in terms of conventional jazz swing, but fans of the ECM sound and of Kenny Wheeler in particular should find much to enjoy here. One would also imagine that these pieces will also adapt themselves well to the live performance environment.
To read more about Andrew Woolf and “Song Unsung” please visit the interview on Debbie Burke’s website at;
Andrew Woolf’s recordings can be purchased via his website;
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