Skyscraper Magazine » The Illegitimist: Obscure and Overlooked Jazz: No. 1
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Jimmy Woods
By Andrew Ionis February 7, 2011

Jazz is one of the oldest of American musical idioms still in common practice, and as such has produced a superabundance of recorded material. The genre’s shelves are heavy with arcane and obscure releases eclipsed by the medium’s revered masterpieces. This overpopulation makes it difficult to identify the records that straddle the line between those extremes. It is this periodical column’s duty to sift through the ephemeral and pantheonic and expose these modern and historic neglected gems to glorious, life-giving light.

Jazz history books are loaded with legend. They’re interminably analyzed by academics and obsessives in the reverential tones usually reserved for discussions of religious martyrs. But for every vaunted genius and revered masterpiece there are a hundred dusty shelves worth of potentially iconic and iconoclastic records. Jimmy Woods’ Conflict ranks as one of those.

Little is known about the post-bop alto saxophonist and Missourian. During the fifties he had a series of short stints in various California R&B groups. And after playing with Chico Hamilton in the mid-sixties he dropped into almost total obscurity, but not before recording two albums for the West Coast based Contemporary label. 1963’s Conflict, Woods’ second and last album as a leader, features the all-star lineup of Elvin Jones on drums, pianist Andrew Hill, bassist George Tucker, saxophonist Harold Land and trumpeter Carmell Jones.

Woods penned the albums’ six original tunes. Each works, but they’re rarely compelling, with the album’s most noteworthy feature being its date leader, who possesses an entirely unique style and voice.

His tone is lean, nasally and ferociously passionate falling somewhere between Art Pepper and Jackie McLean. He burns through notes manically; they flake off Woods like shingles from a Kansas City roof during a tornado. Scales are demolished linearly with Woods joyously ascending towards a scale’s upper echelon, playing precariously along the highest register before landing on the sweetest, spot and making it scream.

“Aim” isn’t the album’s best composition; that title belongs to “Apart Together” or the unhinged intensity of “Coming Home.” But Woods’ solo on it best embodies his style. It begins with a series of sharp, staccato notes and some searing scalar acrobatics. Before long it devolves into a barely restrained cry, held for a beat too long, leaving the listener to wonder how Woods’ lungs haven’t yet imploded. It’s all set to Elvin Jones’ pounding rhythmic work and Hill’s enormous block chords.

It’s possible the session never broke because the formidable sidemen don’t turn in their best work. The overlooked Carmell Jones seems to be painting by numbers and Andrew Hill was never known as a consummate improviser. The burden of proof rests on Woods’ inimitable style and his ability to, in a sixty-five second solo, bridge the chasm between free jazz and bebop.

Above photo: Jimmy Woods, front row center (seated), in a 1963 session with Gerald Wilson (standing). Photo: Woody Woodward.

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