The new album by the Tony Woods Project - 'Lowlands' (SRCD 6-2) draws its inspiration from world music and in particular the indigenous melodic folk idioms of his native Britain. Tony Woods’ quirky and uplifting compositions combined with outstanding musicianship from the whole band create a highly distinctive and individualistic sound. The collective improvisations are often reminiscent of early forms of jazz where the instrumentalists weave their lines around each other and are incorporated into bigger structures. Featuring the work of two rising stars: Mike Outram (guitar) and Milo Fell (drums and percussion), and long time associates Robert Millett on vibes and Andy Hamill on bass, the group displays a high degree of empathy and respect for each other and the music.
Tony Woods Born in Southampton, Tony Woods grew up in Chilworth Old Village and began playing folk music with his father at the age of five. Classical studies on clarinet and piano followed, becoming principal of Southampton Youth Orchestra in 1979, and a member of the British Youth Wind Orchestra in 1980.
From 1980-'84 he was a student at Keele University, where he gave frequent
performances with the New Music Ensemble (directed by Roger Marsh,) including
'Screaming in the Sky' by Tom Williams, a piece written especially for
In 1988 he attended the Guildhall School of Music as a post-graduate
student: studying with John Harle and Jean Toussaint (of Jazz Messenger
fame,) and playing in the Guildhall Jazz Band, which performed at Ronnie
Scott's, the Bass Clef (with Kenny Wheeler) and also won the 1989 BBC
Big Band Competition. Around this time TW also began working with the
National Youth Jazz Orchestra and playing in a band called Within The
Word which performed at various jazz festivals including Soho, Southampton,
Swanage, Bath and London, and completed a tour in 1992, sponsored by Jazz
Services. From this time he worked as a session musician at many of London's
major studios including Angel Studios, Landsdowne Studios, Abbey Road,
BBC Maida Vale (with the BBC Radio Big Band) and for Paul Hardcastle.
Mike Outram: guitar. Mike moved to London in 1998 and since then has been heard with Herbie Mann, Stan Sulzmann and most recently with Dave O'Higgins, Jacqueline Dankworth and Tim Whitehead. He has toured South Africa, Sri Lanka and Europe and is also part of the professorial staff at Trinity College of Music and The Royal Academy of Music, London. www.mikeoutram.com
Robert Millett: vibraphone. After studying music at the Royal College of Music, Robert has worked in many different settings including Ballet Rambert, English National Touring Opera, contemporary music group Icebreaker and Tim Whitehead and Colin Riley’s Homemade Orchestra.
Milo Fell: drums. Milo was born in London in 1970. In 1989 he moved to Manchester where he played and recorded with John Ellis, John Thorne, Rare Birds, Graham Clarke and various jazz, fusion, funk and Latin groups. He also played with visiting soloists including Tim Whitehead who invited him to record a CD (Personal Standards) and play at Ronnie Scott's. He moved back to London in 1999 and since then has played with The Cinematic Orchestra, prize-winning Amsterdam-based band Dalgoo which toured Russia in autumn 2002, and Tim Whitehead and Colin Riley’s Homemade Orchestra.
“If ever a band deserved a higher profile, it has to be the Tony Woods Project” Jazz UK
While some may look askance at Woods’ occasional delving into the antediluvian archive of maritime songs for inspiration that is nothing if not consistent with the group’s debut. “Lowlands” , a sea-shanty of unspecified age, feels more like a gentle canter across the downs, as Woods lays out the melody while Outram feeds him elegantly proportioned lines with economy but loads of flair. Woods’ tone and phrasing sometimes make him sound more like David Sanborn, but the assimilation of folk idioms into his style creates just enough edge to stop him slipping into the cavernous pit of cocktail jazz.
“Old Joe Clark”, another traditional offering, benefits from being a firm favourite with the Woods family apparently; consequently liberties are taken but the melody is as evocative as ever. However, the inclusion of these traditional items provides a cipher for the Woods compositions that occupy the remainder of this set. Again there are moments when the suppleness of the Woods sax is just a little too warm, and when he plays the flute the effect almost cloys. But the rhythm section of Hamill and Fell never lays back, they drive all before them with commendable zeal. Rob Millett adds nice touches but he could do with being a little more assertive. That is a very minor quibble and I would imagine that in a live context he has a lot more opportunity to stretch out.”
Hugh Gregory, Jazz review
“ Saxophonist, flautist and composer Tony Woods has drawn on the British folk traditions for this inventive and imaginative release, and the results are lovely. There are moments of genuine beauty throughout the music as Woods forges a highly personal programme that owes nothing to the American jazz tradition.
Instead, there is a pastoral feel to much of the material that is quintessentially British. But for all that, this is music of drive and authority. Woods’ soloing on his own Presence, Penny’s Whistle and Rollo’s Monkey is invigorating, and there is excellent support from guitarist Mike Outram, vibist Rob Millett and the bass-and-drums team of Andy Hamill and Milo Fell. It’s jazz of admirable freshness and originality.”
The Yorkshire Post (06-02-04)
“ The more secure and technically expert a jazz improviser becomes, one finds, the more deeply he will tap into his true musical roots. Established black US stars grow funkier, Latin Americans more salsafied, and English masters begin to evoke the folk-dances and minuets of old. Reviewers must search for words like “decorative” and “pastoral” to describe the music of Iain Ballamy and Tony Woods, who are essentially the strolling minstrels of today. Woods finds this regression more natural than most, having come to jazz relatively late and from a classical background. He has no hang-ups about using a beautifully pure tone on his saxes and flutes and composing in traditional concepts closer to folk than jazz. His rhythm section and fellow soloists provide a surface-jazz veneer which glosses lightly over the rhythms and harmonies of an altogether more ancient era. He’s as English as the white cliffs of Dover-an Anglo-Saxon saxman whose music is smooth and lustrous.”
When I read that Tony Woods had a folk music background and took much of his inspiration from traditional folk melodies, I came to his latest work thinking that it would typify something quintessentially English. In the jazz world, I thought, the Tony Woods Project will be the ones to stand firm against the tide of Americanisation which is said by those sociological types to be flooding the world and erasing indigenous local cultures. Indeed the folk element of Woods’ compositions does add a certain geographically unique tinge to the music presented on “Lowlands”, situating it firmly in the British Isles. It does more than this, though. It is a key part of what makes Woods so innovative, providing a valuable thread in the tapestry that sees him weave together obvious musical skill with a refreshing take on what jazz today is all about.
“Lowlands” is an album firmly centred around musical skill. Tony Woods has an impressive musical pedigree, having received classical training as well as studying jazz and growing up in a folk-playing family. It is not surprising, then, that he is a talented arranger. His translation of traditional tunes into a jazz style is at once something fun and something clever. The album’s title track is a study in how haunting and emotive the saxophone can be, whilst “Old Joe Clark” uses standard jazz devices to make something traditional sound fresh and modern. Good rhythm and a rambling, freeform approach to interpreting the central melody combine with excellent work from each of the individual musicians to produce a great finished piece. The avowed desire of the group to mimic early jazz recordings by improvising collectively and “weaving their lines around each other” is evident here and throughout the album. There are many opportunities for each of Woods’ gifted collaborators to shine in their own right, and they certainly grasp those opportunities. Particular praise should go to Milo Fell on drums, who enlivens each track he plays on with something rhythmically innovative that is somehow not intrusive. The shimmering waves of percussion at the end of “Penny’s Whistle” are just sublime. Rob Millett, too, is exceptional as he works his vibraphone around Mike Outram’s guitar playing on “Presence (at Christmas)”, creating something with spark and yet profoundly contemplative.
The superior musicianship on this album adds a high gloss of quality to each of the original compositions, which are extremely well constructed pieces. Changes of pace and tone from section to section in “Prayer” are handled with aplomb so that you get a real sense of musicians working together for an ultimate shared goal. Here we see shifts from the soft and smooth, but never bland, sax, to the jumpy rhythms of bass and guitar. Dreaming is transformed into dancing, but the transition is seamless and it just feels right. The sweepingly beautiful melody waxes and wanes before coming home to a beautiful ending that washes over you in a cleansing rush. There is plenty here to keep the mind of the listener active, which is a key feature of jazz that more modern exponents of the art form seem to so rarely appreciate. The Tony Woods Project, however, seem to have a collective empathy for the genre that enables them to do work that extends boundaries and challenges preconceptions. They are able to produce joyful modern takes on rural culture, such as the profoundly uplifting “Country Dance”, alongside hints of Arabian mysticism, as demonstrated on “Breakthrough”, or Indian music with a Celtic edge, as incorporated into “Penny’s Whistle”. They never resort to the conventional. “Chocolat” could easily have been recorded as a simple, lilting, flute tune, but it is infused with a delightful complexity. Woods’ flute soars like a bird at times before fading off into the distance at the album’s close.
The Tony Woods Project have produced an excellent piece of work here that can only be commended. Their attention to detail and obvious collective connection have provided an excellent foundation upon which the arranging and composing talents of Tony Woods himself have been able to build. All of their efforts have resulted in an album that is enjoyable to listen to. It is relaxing without being boring, contemplative without being soporific and innovative whilst still being accessible and listenable. This is an album of uncommon finesse which restores ones faith in the fact that modern jazz still has new directions to take, gaining much from diverse influences but still learning its lessons from the culture rooted in our past and in our land. There is a clear trajectory evident in this album from the past to the future and from traditional cultural forms to modern jazz, and that, combined with the skill evident in the playing of the music, is an excellent reason to go out and buy it.
Claire Hadaway, Jazz Views
"This album by British saxophonist and flautist Tony Woods and superb guitarist Mike Outram first sets itself up as a Jan Garbarek-infused exercise in ambience, and turns out to be completely different. Woods is a deceptively reserved player with all kinds of hidden fires, from postbop ferocity, to free music and funk. All the compositions here are his own, with the exception of two traditional folk tunes, and the quality of the materials, the inventiveness of the improvising and the tightness of the band (the Gary Burton-like Rob Millett is on vibes, Andy Hamill on bass and Milo Fell on drums) are imaginatively balanced.
The Garbarek atmosphere is established on the title track, with its wave sounds and pipe-like solo sax. But then comes a prancing folk-dance that turns funky, a gracefully lurching ballad, a yelping, windy flute feature with a racing, bouzouki-like acoustic guitar rhythm, a guitar/sax conversation that suggests Joe Lovano with John Scofield. A Caribbean breeziness turns to an unexpected raunchiness in which Woods digs into some honking, bar-walking sax. It's full of surprises like that".
John Fordham, The Guardian 4 stars