Altoist Woods treads a thin line between bebop tradition and the avant garde on this...
Peter Marsh 2003
In 1968 alto player Phil Woods gave up a promising career as a sideman and studio musician to move to Paris, in the belief that Europe was a much healthier place (both politically and culturally) to be a jazz musician.
Strangely, he was right. Within a month or two he'd hooked up with a band who'd all go on to be important European jazz artists in their own right; pianist George Gruntz, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Daniel Humair. A storming set at the 1968 Newport Festival suggested this was a band to be reckoned with; though visiting American jazzmen usually worked with local pickup bands while in Europe, this was a different kettle of fish. The ERM stayed together for five years (with only two personnel changes) and arguably produced the altoist's finest and most exploratory work.
Woods, a self confessed 'old bebopper', was deeply in thrall to the work of Charlie Parker, but the ERM's remit included nods to the emergent avant garde. On this date (recorded in 1969) they cover tunes by Carla Bley and Herbie Hancock; though Woods was publicly distrustful of free jazz (he famously dismissed Anthony Braxton's music in a Downbeat blindfold test) he was obviously attracted to the possibilites of improvising over more expansive structures. Hancock's "Riot" provokes an electrifying solo from the altoist that recalls Eric Dolphy's elastication of bebop language.
Pretty much everything here is taken at an alarmingly high tempo. Woods' bebop sensibilities are intact, but he rarely resorts to merely recycling old licks; or if he does, he stitches them together in new ways. More crucially, his tone never suffers at speed; where other altoists get screechy, Woods' tone remains satisfyingly fruity, each note deftly articulated.
Humair is equally dazzling; there's some of Elvin Jones' polyrhythmic approach at work, coupled with the effortless complexity of Roy Haynes. And (aided by Texier's flowing, inventive lines) he swings too; Woods noted ruefully that Humair's abilities were accepted with some surprise by American audiences (obviously unused to the notion that any European musicians could be worth their time).
Later editions of the band with Gordon Beck at the keyboard would take Woods into more exploratory pastures, flirting with electric instruments and rock rhythms, but this Montreux set is second generation bebop of the highest order. Recommended.