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Phil Woods & the New Festival Orchestra: New Celebration

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New Celebration is Phil Woods’ sequel to his 1997 Grammy-nominated Celebration. Like that earlier effort, this one features the now-82-year-old alto saxophonist and clarinetist in cahoots with a big band, the 18-piece Festival Orchestra, some of them returnees from ’97 and the others local players from Woods’ Pocono Mountains region in Pennsylvania.

Half of the 10 tracks are tributes to specific musicians. The first, the self-explanatory “Hank Jones,” is late-night melancholy in pace, Woods’ sassy saxophone solo punctuated at regular intervals by wailing walls of brass and broken up by Skip Wilkins’ expressive, if brief, piano solo. Of the other tributes, to Art Pepper, Charlie Parker, Al Cohn and clarinetist Hank D’Amico, it’s the lattermost, “Ballad for Hank,” that swings hardest. It’s both evocative of the classic big-band era and modern enough in its arrangement so as not to tumble into a retro sinkhole.

The other five tracks-like the tributes, each is composed by Woods-vary in mood, tempo and temperature, the very first, “Bop’n Bob Don’t Stop,” setting the scene admirably. Woods and trumpeter Chris Persad shine, but the entire unison line of reeds remains fired up throughout. “Shiny Pants” (a bit of a nod to Frank Foster’s “Shiny Stockings”) trots along more subtly. A showcase for strong trumpet solos by Persad and Nate Eklund as well as tenor saxophonist Tom Hamilton, its airiness also affords plenty of space for sharp ensemble work. A heavy flute and trombone presence throughout the recording brings additional depth and coloration.

All of this commendable playing is housed within finely crafted compositions that rank alongside any of the work Woods has turned out in his multi-decade career. (In his liner notes, Quincy Jones singles out Woods’ writing skills.) Something to celebrate, indeed.

Originally Published