The Tony Woods Project are currently on tour. Charlie Anderson spoke to the saxophonist about his music and his work with The Lyric Ensemble.
How would you describe the music of the Tony Woods Project?
It’s jazz that has world music influences, so African and latin grooves, quite often twisted into
odd time signatures. Within that is a British folk influence as well. I think the over-riding thing, I hope, is that it’s melodic. I hope there are tunes that stand up on their own as tunes, regardless of funny time signatures and so on.
You play mostly original material. In terms of composing, how do you go about it?
Invariably I sit at the piano, as it’s such a great instrument for composing on. You’ve got the whole orchestra at your fingertips; you can have chords and melody all going on at once. Having said that, there’s the odd line that I come up with that’s very saxophone orientated. There’s one tune in particular called Igneous Rock, which is like a fast reel and quite Coltraney as well, so a lot of false fingers and funny things going on which are very saxophone- related. I didn’t write that line on the piano, but a lot of the melodies and harmonies I’ve worked out at the piano. I sing the melody in my head and then play along with that.
The band that you’ve got has quite a different instrumentation using vibraphone and guitar. Does that influence you when you compose?
Yes, I’ve always liked the sound of the vibraphone but on its own it’s quite a sad sound and I like the richness that you get with the guitar and all the effects that electric fusion players use. I like those two instruments together as a backdrop and they do work really well together. You get an amazing textural sound and that does affect how I write some of the music. I’ve got that sound in my head and the sort of sound that a vibraphone has. It’s a minimalist kind of texture that’s in my head when I think of the backdrop. He evens plays the vibraphone with a bow which is quite an unusual effect and I’m aware of all those possibilities. And obviously the electric guitar is a huge force so I’m aware of that instrumentation. It’s sort of limiting in some ways because it’s not like I have another horn so I haven’t got the strength of a trumpet line or something but you’ve got other things instead which are very nice. I play multiple reeds, mostly alto and soprano saxophone, and I’ve got others such as alto clarinet which has a nice, big clarinet sound, and wood flutes and whistles and so on.
The electric guitar is a full-on electric instrument. On the albums we have marimba as well but the vibes player doesn’t like to tour with it as it’s a huge thing to carry around. But the vibraphone is a plainer sound
but I always love the magical quality of vibes. I just love that sound in the band.
Andy Hamill has got a lovely double bass sound and Milo Fell, I’m sure people in Brighton will have seen him play, he’s a great drummer and plays in a particular way which suits my music really well. He has a great groove, it’s just perfect for my music.
You’re involved in a few other projects as well, including The Lyric Ensemble.
That’s probably the next project that I’ll be doing some recording with. That is really very close to me in that it’s with my wife Nette [vocalist Nette Robinson]. We both worked with the late Michael Garrick on his settings of poetry, hence The Lyric Ensemble, which sometimes was just a trio of Nette, myself and Michael Garrick. We would do gigs like that. Amazingly, in the last few years of his life he wrote these songs, setting poetry for Nette to sing. And we recorded two albums with him right at the end of his life. He died, sadly, before we’d had a chance to release the last one so we then toured that with pianist Nikki Iles, who is a wonderful pianist. Since Michael’s death I’ve then taken on that idea of setting poems to music.
I think I’ve done about nine of them now. We’re getting together with Nikki quite soon to work through these new songs that I’ve written. I think Nikki has written some settings of poetry as well. And we will, of course, be going to record that, probably with Matt Ridley on bass as he worked with Michael Garrick quite a lot. We’ll probably be a drummer-less quartet when we record it. The poems are by Shakespeare, Thomas Hood and Siegfried Sassoon who are quite big names! It’s a really lovely thing to do. I’ve never done songs before. I’ve written a lot of instrumental music for my projects. We’ve done four albums and we’ve got a fifth album on the way. We’ve also got big band versions of those. So I’ve done a lot of instrumentals and improvisation, but with The Lyric Ensemble it was the first time I’d tried setting poetry and having words to deal with. It’s really nice having words to work with, because the atmosphere and the rhythm of the words gives you a lot of starting points.
What’s your approach to improvisation?
I always try to tell a story when I improvise, and I suppose the tunes themselves hopefully have a melodic quality and I try to keep that melodic approach when I improvise.
I try to keep a sense of narrative,
a sense of telling a story as the solos develop and have a motivic development. My intention is to lead the listener along. That’s the plan, both for the improvised stuff, as well as the written material.
How’s the tour shaping up?
It’s quite a nice tour that we’ve got coming up. The second
gig of the tour is the one in Brighton then we’ve got various others, one of which is going to be recorded for BBC Radio 3, the one in Poole.
Tony Woods Project
The Verdict, Brighton Saturday 4th May, 2019
Interview by Charlie Anderson
Photo by Robert Goodhew