Actually, this session was forty years in the making. After writing much of the piece in 1961 he found himself unable to perform or to record it due to copyright problems with the A.A. Milne estate and the Disney company, whose teams of lawyers are about as far from cuddly Pooh-ness as it is possible to get. After 40 years, however, Woods ran into the actor Peter Dennis who turned out to be the only person licensed to perform Milne's works on stage. Himself a big jazz fan, Dennis liked both Phil and the project and went to bat for them, eventually overcoming the lawyering to make the performance and recording of The Children's Suite possible.
Woods now turned to the task of assembling an ensemble to perform the suite. Enter another key figure in the story. Principal trombonist of the New York City Ballet, and a noted jazz educator, Rick Chamberlain had worked with Phil in developing the Delaware Water Gap Celebration of the Arts (COTA). The COTA jazz camp provided funding that allowed their faculty members to serve as the performers. The City Ballet provided additional string players, Peter Dennis was on hand to recite Milne's verses and the Children's Suite was born.
And it works. The intriguing thing is, why? Could there, at least on the surface, two more contrasting cultures than the sunny, whimsical world of A.A. Milne--The House at Pooh Corner , Now We Are Six--and late night sessions in New York night clubs. Yet it is the nature of art to reconcile opposites. (The word harmony is from a Greek root that means exactly that.) The link here is that Woods is a father; he reports that the original idea for the suite came to him in 1961 when he was unpacking his own children's Milne books after moving house. "Milne's words caused a hair trigger response. I said to myself ‘these would make great songs.' The words were magic to me. I felt like a melodic faucet was turned on. It was the most fertile period I've ever had as a song writer."
The flow of creative energy is evident in these selections. The lyrics are from Now We Are Six, set with great sensitivity by Woods. I have not heard his writing for a larger ensemble since The Rights of Swing. That was done in 1960--the same period as the piece heard here. The results suggest that Woods needs to do more of this. The vocals, handled by Doney and Dorough strike just the right note. The settings swing hard; they are in no way childish or whimsical. The soloists are excellent throughout, Woods himself in his usual fluent and bluesey form, the others in no way intimidated by the presence of a jazz master. Certainly, at times, the solo work takes us more toward New York than Pooh Corner, yet seem in no way incongruous side by side with Dennis' recitations, which are the essence of Milne. Herein lies the mystery of this intriguing work.
If you are an A.A. Milne fan you will enjoy hearing these verses in an unexpected context. If you are interested in Phil Woods as a composer this is essential listening. Either way, this must rank with the most remarkable jazz releases of 2009.