Tony Woods Project, Hidden Fires Tour 2019(Milestones Jazz Club, Lowestoft. 6 October 2019. Review by John Arnett)
As a relative newcomer to the music of Tony Woods, this concert, on a rainy Sunday night in Lowestoft, was a delight and a revelation. It was the final date in the Arts Council funded Hidden Fires tour, and as such had a celebratory feel to it. There is a lot to celebrate – the quintet have been in business for 20 years and four albums (it was also, incidentally the 23rd anniversary of Milestones jazz club, and 10 years since the band’s last visit) The line up has been unchanged since 2004, although for tonight, Chris Allard was deputising for usual guitarist Mike Outram – sight reading throughout, as Tony Woods mischievously pointed out towards the end. Nobody would have known.
Tony Woods Project. (Photo credit: Nick Rabett)
The “project” of fusing together the seemingly disparate traditions of folk and jazz does have something of a history in this country. One thinks of Pentangle in the late ’60s and early ’70s, Tim Garland’s group Lammas, and the wonderful Quercus with June Tabor, Huw Warren and Iain Ballamy, more recently. It is an enterprise that can however run the risk of sounding like something of a forced marriage. On the evidence of tonight’s music, this was never going to be an issue. For one thing it draws on much wider and more global sources than just English or British folk music. Tony Woods grew up steeped in the latter traditions, but seems equally at home in Eastern European, Arabic or far eastern idioms, all of which crucially add to the appeal of this music. Not only that, the compositions have a melodic immediacy and texture that draws the listener in. Add to this the depth of understanding between the players and the stellar musicianship and jazz sensibilities on display and you have a very combustible mix indeed. It’s just hugely enjoyable music, played with real energy.
The overall clarity of the sound was excellent, with each of the individual voices being present and distinct in the ensemble playing. Tony Woods has spoken of his particular love of the complementary sounds of vibraphone (Rob Millett) and electric guitar. This is very much a distinctive feature of the band, and enables the creation of washes of sound (Igneous Rock) and ostinato patterns (Driftwood) to underpin soloing, alongside rhythm section of Milo Fell (drums and percussion) and Andy Hamill (double bass). To describe them as a rhythm section is to do them a disservice actually. On Lowlands for example, Andy Hamill plays a beautifully judged chromatic harmonica solo, before switching back to the bass. Milo Fell’s drumming is not only integral to the whole sound, with often unusual time signatures, but also a voice in its own right, moving in and out of the foreground to often thrilling effect.
Each set consisted of six tunes, drawn from Hidden Fires and earlier albums, as well as two tunes not yet recorded – Effervescence and The Bells of Goch. Tony Woods himself played a variety of instruments – alto and soprano saxes, and the seldom-seen alto clarinet, with its pleasing bassy rasp. In addition to this, tin whistle, wooden flute and bansuri, associated with Indian traditional music. A highlight was the beautiful melody Metamorphosis where he was somehow able to stretch the available notes on the tin whistle so it sounded like we were going from Ireland to Africa and back again. He introduced this one as “a return to our folk roots”.
Other memorable moments, and there were many, included Chris Allard’s guitar solo on Driftwood which seemed to dispense with all the conventional tropes of guitar solos and start again from scratch, during which Tony Woods expression can only be described as blissed out. Igneous Rock from the latest album was an epic piece, both frenetic and melodic to begin with, before subsiding into a more chilled out section with vibes, bowed bass, and skittery percussion, then back into something like manic funk, with a screaming alto solo. It is music that is always morphing into something else, always interesting, often cathartic. Pantagruel managed to be both catchy and sinister at the same time. It reminded me of Captain Beefheart’s phrase “opaque melodies that would bug most people”. Tony Woods described it as “a silly little tune”. The second set finished with Prayer, a slow, haunting spiritual based on a repeated six-note phrase. In the middle section it somehow transforms itself into a New Orleans style marching groove with a cranked up guitar solo, before returning to the opening prayer. The band were clearly enjoying themselves tonight and the audience certainly did. It was an altogether uplifting show.