The Greg Abate Quintet Featuring Phil Woods

Greg Abate is that rare multi-instrumentalist in jazz who is equally proficient on all his instruments, in this case being alto, tenor, soprano, and baritone saxophones, as well as flute. Although he's very active as both a performer and an educator, the Rhode Island-based Abate is not nearly as well-known as his very special guest on this CD, the alto saxophonist Phil Woods, one of his main influences along with Charlie Parker. Abate's early credits include lead alto with Ray Charles, and then tenor sax with the Artie Shaw Orchestra under the direction of Dick Johnson. Since 1991 Abate has recorded a string of noteworthy CDs as a leader, including the 2002 Grammy-nominated Evolution with James Williams, Harvie S, and Billy Hart. This session finds Abate in the company of Woods for five of the 10 tracks, in addition to pianist Jesse Green, bassist Evan Gregor, and Woods' longtime drummer Bill Goodwin. Abate's eight originals, and Woods' piece dedicated to Art Pepper, reaffirm these two accomplished musicians' prowess as composers. Their playing simply speaks for itself.

Abate and Woods' altos blend mellifluously on the leader's enticing "Roger Over and Out." Abate's solo is assured in a relaxed but incisive manner, and played with a warm, welcoming tone. After Green's prancing delight, Woods spins a resolute improv, his intonation more biting than Abate's. The vibrant call and response out chorus after the reprise is an added bonus. "Pear for the Bear" was written for jazz DJ Tom Balas, and Abate's soprano lifts this lilting medium-tempo theme with its neatly contrasting Latin-flavored bridge. Green's solo glides enthusiastically through the pleasant changes, and Abate's statement is full of fire and spirit. Gregor's lucid exploration outlines the tune's attractive dimensions, and Goodwin's adaptable drumming on this track is a lesson in focused vitality.

"Rocco's Place," written for the owner of Abate's favorite Italian restaurant, is a soulful tune that finds Greg on baritone sax, in pleasing variance with Woods' penetrating alto. Goodwin's back beat propels Woods' sinuous solo as well as Abate's, during which he substantiates his dexterity on the big horn. After Green's sterling turn, Gregor and Goodwin trade nimble passages. "Carmel By the Sea" is Abate's salute to that California coast locale, another freshly conceived composition. His alto solo whirls infectiously, and Green's surges with energy and imagination. Woods' approach is more fragmented, skillfully connecting the parts into a satisfyingly logical whole. Gregor's bass invention precedes another gratifying set of exchanges by the altos, and their earnest repeat of the undulating theme.

British pianist John Patrick's ballad "Marny" is given a gently affecting theme reading by Green, which is reiterated more firmly by Abate's inviting baritone, with the pianist returning for the bridge. Abate's expressive and moving solo again makes apparent his mastery of the bari. Green and Gregor's concise improvs also capture the graceful beauty of this tune. "J.A.G." is for Abate's children Jessica, Anthony, and Gregory, and appeared previously on a 1995 release led by Dan Moretti. Based on Benny Carter's "When Lights Are Low," Woods' alto and Abate's flute make a joyful tandem as they soar above Goodwin's urgent Latin rhythms. Abate's agile flute solo is followed by both Woods and Green sailing around the fresh changes with great aplomb. An alto/flute give and take near the end is intense and uplifting.

"Special K," inspired by Abate's "partner and soul mate" Kerry Tracey, is remindful of "Invitation" to a minor extent. Green's extended line solo is mesmerizing, and Abate's jubilant, effervescent romp on soprano is flawlessly formulated and executed. Gregor and Goodwin close out the improvisations with flair and substance. Abate's "Contemplation" is taken at a medium tempo and has an insistent, driving modal vibe. Greg's flute solo is Eric Dolphy-like at times in its inflections and convoluted phrasing. Green's investigation is more laid-back but very effective in its "contemplation." Gregor's magnetic journey recalls the sound and resolve of Jimmy Garrison, while Goodwin's brief interlude invokes Elvin Jones.

Woods' stirring tribute to Art Pepper, "Goodbye Mr. Pepper," here makes its debut on CD. Goodwin's Latin beat elevates the two altoists in their intertwined exposition of the exhilarating, affirmative theme. Green's melodic interval brings us to Woods' emotional solo, which is answered by a similarly engaged one from Abate. The reprise and a subtly potent unison tag confirm this tune's merit. "Realization (Living the Dash -)" was introduced on Abate's Evolution CD, and was penned on 9-11-01 after the Twin Towers fell. The "dash -" signifies Abate's "realization of how precious life is and the time from our birth date and to the final departure date." This version is "dedicated to my good friend and mentor the late great Dick Johnson, whose alto I am playing on this track." Abate's alto playing is rousing, as is his theme. His solo is perhaps his finest on the disc, an intricately woven hard bop diversion that is ceaselessly inventive. Green then comes close to matching his passion, no easy feat. Gregor's improv is also absorbing, and Goodwin's trades with alto and piano are enlivening examples of his playing at its very best. In fact, Goodwin has probably never sounded better than he does on this entire recording.

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Scott Albin