Preview: New Tony Woods Project album Hidden Fires

Tony Woods
Photo Credit: Robert Goodhew
The saxophonist and jazz educator Tony Woods is about to release his fourth album under the banner of The Tony Woods Project. He told Peter Jones about it.

The new album Hidden Fires features a set of new compositions by Tony Woods, plus one traditional folk song - The Bonfire Carol. Like June Tabor and Christine Tobin, Woods straddles the jazz-folk divide: his 92-year-old father Rollo is a celebrated folk musician, a concertina player, whose influence pervades all the work of Woods Jr.

Hidden Fires is the fourth release from the Project, and all of them have featured the same instrumentation and most of the same musicians, although each album has been released on a different record label. The line-up of vibes, electric guitar, bass and drums, plus Tony, creates a highly distinctive and identifiably British sound. Robert Millett has played vibes and Andy Hamill has been bassist on all four albums. The line-up has remained constant since Lowlands (2004), the belated follow-up to 1997’s High Seas, with Mike Outram on guitar and Milo Fell on drums. This new album appears on the 20th anniversary of High Seas.

There’s plenty of variety among the tracks, with Woods playing a range of different wind instruments from saxophones to penny whistle. Outram’s guitar sound too changes from track to track, from rock-ish (Gargantua) to light and reflective (The Bonfire Carol). "One thing I try to achieve with this music is the sense of narrative, not in terms of words, but more that the music is going somewhere, so there’s a narrative thread in the written tunes and also the improvisations. And that’s whether it’s in a free, abstract way, or over the chord changes," Tony said.

With the title of the opening track, Queen Takes Knight, those in the know may detect the influence of Woods’s wife, the singer, arranger, visual artist and chess aficionado Nette Robinson. But there’s more to it than that: ‘It’s a rather complicated story, but elements of that tune were inspired by a tune the late Eddie Harvey wrote for John Dankworth, called Knight of the Jazz Stable. Harvey was a seminal figure in postwar British jazz – trombonist in the Johnny Dankworth Seven, later pianist and composer, and perhaps most importantly, a jazz educator. He was also a founder member of the south-west London jazz collective Way Out West – which Tony and Nette also belong to.

What about the other tracks? Tony explains: "The second one, Igneous Rock, is a very driving, rocky piece, like a fast folk reel. Then there’s The Bonfire Carol, which is a traditional folk tune, quite dark and atmospheric. Metamorphic is an African sort of 12/8 number with a simple tune that I play on a penny whistle. It was inspired by an improvisation by the guitarist Tony Lammin, who’s one of my students. The tracks Gargantua and Pantagruel are based on comic stories by Rabelais. They were originally commissioned by the Walton Riverhouse to be played live at an art exhibition they were putting on."

Almost by chance, the four Tony Woods Project albums to date have each focused on one of the four medieval ‘elements’ – water (High Seas), earth (Lowlands), air (Wind Shadows) and now fire. So what will be left for any future album?

"There is a fifth element – the ether. Or I might just stop there and come up with something new."

Meanwhile, Woods is busy with a number of other projects: among them is the Lyric Ensemble, originally formed by the late Michael Garrick to set poetry to music, featuring Nikki Iles on piano and Matt Ridley on bass. And Way Out West will shortly play their London Jazz Festival date at Posk in Hammersmith, celebrating Thelonious Monk’s 100th birthday by playing a selection of his tunes alongside some new compositions. (pp)

The Tony Woods Project’s Hidden Fires is launched on Monday 27 November at Pizza Express, Dean Street album launch, and there’s a pre-launch gig at the Ram Jam, Kingston, on 18 November at 1pm. The Way Out West Monk tribute gig at Posk takes place on Friday 10 November.

LINK: Tony Woods talks about jazz and folk to Sebastian (feature for Jazz Line-Up )

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