The borough of Delaware Water Gap, PA, (population: 744) is a special place. It's the location of the Deer Head Inn, a jazz mecca for about half a century. Since 1978 it has been the home of the Celebration of the Arts (COTA), a unique jazz and arts festival. All of this is related. One night Phil Woods and friends were in the Deer Head which was overflowing with jazz musicians waiting to jam. Someone said "We could have a helluva festival if we moved it outside." And that's how it started. This "neighborhood "jazz festival takes place annually on the weekend following Labor Day. The players are all from the extended neighborhood of the Poconos .They have included both "players deserving wider recognition" and nationally known artists (Phil Woods, Al Cohn, Urbie Green,Dave Liebman, Bob Dorough and others) who are drawn to the area by its natural beauty and its proximity to NYC. COTA in turn supports music scholarships and various causes in this small community.
Phil Woods, a co-founder of COTA, is a five-time Grammy winner, a perpetual Down Beat readers' poll champion and THE monster alto player of our time. Pianist John Coates, who played the Deer Head for over 25 years and inspired Keith Jarrett (who often sat in as his drummer!), has a dedicated following but is still one of those "players deserving wider recognition." He is a powerful improviser and very much a two-handed player whose style is easier for me to recognize than explain. At times, particularly in his compositions, I hear elements of blues, gospel and hymnlike sounds that seem spiritual.
There's a lot of warmth and intimacy at COTA and the same is true of this session in Phil Woods' living room, just uphill from the Deer Head. It's two friends, who also happen to be jazz masters, creating, listening,enjoying and responding . All of this was recorded with empathy by producer Eric Doney. Doney, himself a fine pianist, also produced the 1994 "Piano...forte !!" which marked Coates' return after health problems.
John Coates' compositional gifts are showcased by the duo's treatment of his originals which range from a beautiful ballad, "Much Too Much" to the funky, bluesy "Freak of the Week" to "Starting From the Back," an exercise in moods. They turn that old barn burner "Cherokee" into an impressionistic jazz waltz and swing lightly on "Embracable You." There no doubt about Woods' chops as he digs in on "Affair to Remember" while he also takes a rare and masterful turn on clarinet with the Schwartz / Dietz rarity, "How Can We Be Wrong," which dates back to the days of Andy Kirk and Eddie Duchin.
Clearly a labor of love. Yes, giants at play. Listen.