As If Classically Composed: Artful New Album from Andrew Woolf, “Song Unsung”

In his debut as a leader, sax and clarinet player Andrew Woolf’s “Song Unsung” makes a huge splash. The title song begins almost with an orchestral feel; as if the sax’s double-reeded cousin, the bassoon, is there instead, cracking open the scene with a mournful declaration. The harmonies have a distinct Copland-like feel, a bright… Continue Reading →

In his debut as a leader, sax and clarinet player Andrew Woolf’s “Song Unsung” makes a huge splash. The title song begins almost with an orchestral feel; as if the sax’s double-reeded cousin, the bassoon, is there instead, cracking open the scene with a mournful declaration. The harmonies have a distinct Copland-like feel, a bright golden horn sitting on top; very American for this UK musician. However, flatted, bluesy notes waft in and you know this ain’t no early 20th century material. “Trieste” opens with crashing cymbals, also hearkening to a large orchestra setting. This is a truly gorgeous piece as the high hat continue to shimmer and seamless harmonies weave their way through and around unexpected chord changes. And then there’s a surprise: a sultry “Twenty Years Ago” that pulls back deliciously, allowing each musician a space and place. A thoughtful and obviously lovingly rendered album.

The personnel includes:

Andrew Woolf – tenor saxophone
Joe Auckland – trumpet
Rob Updegraff – guitar
Dave Manington – double bass
Simon Roth – drums

What inspired the name “Song Unsung” and what inspired you to write this music?

“Song Unsung” is a poem by Rabindranath Tagore, which really resonated with me when I first encountered it several years ago. I wrote a few chords in response to it, which then became the basis for a collective improvisation, as you hear it on the album. I wanted to try to express the essence of the poem, which is about longing, waiting and uncertainty. Compositionally it’s very simple and open, with just a general planned arc to it.

After the recording, I decided it made sense to make it the title of the album too. It took me a long time to feel ready to make this album, so in a way it has been my own unsung song that I’ve finally come round to releasing out into the world.

You’ve played in different genres including African, Brazilian and experimental. How would you say you bring these together here?

I wasn’t consciously trying to integrate them in this project, but I’m aware of how some of the

compositions were influenced by other styles that I was working with at the same time as writing them. For example, when I wrote “Paradise”, I was playing a lot of Afrobeat music, and giving a lot of thought and attention to the lightness and bounce that goes on in the groove of that music. So while I wasn’t trying to write my own Afrobeat tune or some kind of fusion, it was more just a feeling and an attitude that got carried over into my own composition.

I play a lot of Brazilian music, and the one tune on the album not by me – “Miragem de Inaê” – is by a Brazilian friend, Anna Paes. I first heard her playing it at a concert in Rio de Janeiro and couldn’t get it out of my head afterwards.

That led me towards thinking of it for an arrangement in a jazz setting. I kept some of Anna’s guitar patterns in my arrangement, so even though we’re playing it in a very different way, there are some hints of Brazilian rhythms in there.

Do you have a favorite track or does it depend on your mood?

It comes and goes. The compositions date back over a very long period of time, many years, so they also relate of different times of my life. “Trieste,” for example, was written in memory of a holiday with a special group of friends in my very early twenties and evokes a deep fondness. I’ve always been very happy with “Sway” because it just came out very naturally when I wrote it, and has a certain flow to it. Lots of musicians have enjoyed playing that one. And I’m also very attached to “Song Unsung” as described earlier.

When you write, are you primarily hearing it through the ears of a sax player or clarinet player? How do you decide which instrumentation to use?

These compositions weren’t generally written with instrumentation in mind. Usually later on I’ll

consider whether to use sax or clarinet. I’ve played clarinet on lots of these tunes before, and like using it on lots of them. I ended up playing sax throughout on this album.

Which jazz icons do you feel have influenced you as a musician?

Kenny Wheeler, Paul Motian, Joe Lovano and Lee Konitz are all really important to me. Of the biggest ‘icons’, I’d say probably Miles Davis and Wayne Shorter – as much for the philosophies behind their profound and deep attitudes to music-making as anything else. Also several saxophone players from more recent generations, Chris Cheek, Bill McHenry, Julian Argüelles and others – in terms of my own personal sound, I think those players have had as big an influence on me as any of the ‘greats’.

What was it like to create/produce your first project as leader? What were some of the new challenges you haven’t faced before?

I’ve played in a fair amount of projects either in side-man role, or groups that were collectively led, so it has felt different doing my own project for the first time. But it also meant I’d had lots of time for to form my ideas and thoughts about being in the role of bandleader before doing it myself. I’ve enjoyed embracing the opportunity to make something that feels very personal, and being able to have the final say about how I wanted certain things to be, getting them just as I liked – whilst also trying to leave plenty of space for the other musicians to bring something to it. But even then, they were my choice of musicians, of course. Joe, Dave, Ben and Simon all bring something special and different to the music, including choices that I wouldn’t make myself, and that’s why I like having them there.

The flip-side of it being solely my project was in maintaining conviction in what I was doing throughout all stages, so that was the biggest challenge really. There’s been a fair amount of procrastination! But it’s all part of the process.

What was the most enjoyable part of this journey?

There are lots of pleasurable aspects, but right now I’d say just the satisfaction of finally bringing it all to fruition. It took a while, but I reached a stage of feeling good about how it turned out, feeling like it was the right time to do it, and finally being excited to release it.

I also really enjoyed working with Max Franosch, who provided the beautiful design and artwork, and also a video artist, Henry Edmonds (aka Odourless Aunt), who has created a film for one of the tracks called “Song Unsung.” Thinking about those other creative aspects was a really enjoyable way of bringing the album to a completed final form. They were also a really good focus to have during lockdown, a way to stay creatively connected with the project whilst not able to perform.

What was going on in your life “Twenty Years Ago” that inspired you to write this song?

Well, the reason it has that title is that that’s roughly when it was written. It’s the oldest tune on the album, I wrote it in my late teens. I don’t particularly remember what was going on at the time I wrote it. I always stayed fond of it though, and wanted to include it on the album. For most of its life it had no title, so when we came to the recording session, I decided to give it that name as a way of marking it.

What is it like to improv with these musicians; what flavors do they bring?

I really enjoy the contrasts that the others all contribute, and that they bring things to the music

that wouldn’t be there otherwise. Even though I had a lot of specific ideas about how I wanted the music, it’s still been really shaped by the way they play it. Joe and I have a really great connection, having played together lots over the years, and we always enjoy getting together. We have a previous EP with a band called Soma Quartet, from the early 2000s, and lots of what we did with that band back then carried into what I did with this album. One of the many things Joe brings is a lighter, more whimsical side, which I love. Rob brings a really different aspect to the music as well, often a bit grittier or rougher round the edges, and he also has a great sense of space and texture. I’ve played with Dave lots too, in the Button Band, so I feel we’ve developed a very familiar way of playing and interacting, and he’s always so switched on. He has a great positive attitude towards making things work and happen. Simon was the latest addition to the line-up (which I’d experimented with over the years), but got the vibe of everything really quickly. He’s really receptive and open to possibilities for where the music might go, and I really enjoy the way he responds to things.

Has performing opened up in London, and if so, how do you think the scene has changed or will continue to change?

Things are picking up slowly. I’ve done a few gigs with other groups. The next thing is to do a launch gig for this album. My biggest worry is for the small venues, which are so vital for the scene. They were already struggling to keep going even pre-pandemic, and they haven’t been well supported since either. It’s sad to see some venues closing, as without them so much vibrancy is lost. At the same time, I’m a big believer that creative people will always find ways to keep being creative, so I do think new things will arise too. I’d like to think that there’ll be a renewed appreciation for live performance, after it having been limited for so long.

What is your advice to players getting back to gigging?

It’s going to vary a lot for each person, I guess the important thing is to take it at whatever pace

feels comfortable. I know some people who are desperate to do as much as possible straight away, and others who feel the need to ease themselves back a bit more gently. I’m more the latter myself.

I feel rusty, and that I’ve neglected a lot of things in my music during the pandemic, but I’ve also managed (mostly) not to be too hard on myself about that. I feel like I’m building myself back up a bit. I try to remember that it’s okay to take time, and that having patience and compassion are important things.

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Photos courtesy of and with permission of the artist. Top photo (c) Marzena Ostromecka.

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