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JAZZ REVIEW : Phil Woods Swings Through a Classy Set

Question: Why has Phil Woods been one of the most repeatedly honored jazz alto saxophonists of the last few decades?

For the answer, check out Catalina Bar & Grill this week, where Woods is providing an object lesson in the contemporary vitality of jazz.

His opening night Tuesday was a no-nonsense mixture of well-crafted compositions and--especially on his part--superb improvising. Despite his prominent appearance on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are” in 1977, Woods’ music has rarely made any concessions to either the theatricality or the commercialism of pop, and his work with his current quintet is no exception.

Playing just five tunes, Woods allowed ample room for his own soloing, most notably on Al Cohn’s ballad, “Pensive,” and pianist Jim McNeely’s cunningly rhythmic “Empty House.” Woods’ style has matured over the years from its be-bop beginnings into a more eclectic but highly personal expression. Bits and pieces of gospel blues, avant-garde honks and smears blended with his signature, straight-ahead swing to create a series of constantly fascinating improvisations.

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Working with Woods in the front line was trombonist Hal Crook, who managed to find some hidden treasure in the nearly forgotten “Love Is a Many Splendored Thing.” Pianist McNeely, however, sounded a bit mechanical--a shame, since Catalina is sporting a brand-new Steinway. And Woods’ dependable team of Steve Gilmore on bass and Bill Goodwin on drums laid down, as they always do, a precisely swinging, elegantly articulate stream of rhythmic energy.

Woods’ jazz seminars--which should be at the top of the don’t-miss list for all music fans--continue at Catalina Bar & Grill through Sunday night.


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