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Spice of life

Tom Woods serves up jazz with Latin, fusion, classical flavors

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Try this: While listening to music live or on CD, ask yourself how long it takes before the musicians in question begin to repeat themselves. How long before the same melodic phrases or rhythmic structures appear for a second time: Five minutes? Ten? Twenty? Sixty minutes?

In music, as in much of life, originality and versatility are measures of achievement. It's something pianist Tom Woods strives for in the work of his quartet, Tomana, which performs Nov. 2-3 at Cino Grille in Marietta.

"I do like to hear variety, and I think that's one of the strengths of this group," Woods says. "The original music is wide-ranging. It includes some fusion influence, some Latin, some Middle Eastern influences in the harmonies -- and the rhythmic things are widely varied."

Woods, 47, began his musical sojourn studying classical percussion and jazz drums in college, first at the University of Wisconsin and later at the Wisconsin Conservatory of Music, both in Milwaukee. He picked up a few paychecks playing tympani in small symphony orchestras, and even studied vibraphone (a rather logical transition, in retrospect) before finally settling on piano.

Woods applies his background in drums and percussion to his composing efforts on piano.

"When I'm writing a new tune, one of the things I try to [ask myself] is, 'Is this tune going to be rhythmically different from all my other tunes, and from most things that I know of?' I try to come up with something that is not related to things I've already done," he says.

Woods also draws from his experience playing in Central America, South America and Europe. That diversity is clear on his Just in Time CD. Released in June 2000, it features Latin-influenced cuts ("Needless," the salsa-styled "Bogota"), fusion ("Fizgig," "Incinerator") and soft jazz ("Tom's Tune," "Seaside"). Several of the CD's recordings have been featured on The Weather Channel alongside the work of Dave Brubeck, Pat Metheny, Joe Sample, Spyro Gyra and others.

Despite the Latin influence, Woods is quick to point out that he doesn't try to write in authentic Latin music forms. "If you say you're playing a salsa, for example, you have to have a very specific set of rhythmic things going on between the bass and the percussionist and the piano player. If it's not there, you're not really playing a salsa -- which is all right. That's not what I'm trying to do," says Woods. "I'm just trying to write music that feels right to me ... [in which] the melodies are good and the rhythm sounds like it makes sense."

Funk and classical influences pervade his writing as well. "I do have several pieces that are almost like classical music," Woods says. "There's one in particular that has no meter to it, no beat -- it's completely rubato and fluid throughout. No one would call it jazz, even though it does involve improvising."

A number of his songs, in fact, were first composed solely for piano, but Woods says that he'd occasionally "throw one at the quartet." Several of those have developed into successful ensemble pieces.

This eclectic mix has brought Woods and Tomana steady work at the High Museum of Art, Fernbank Museum, Kennesaw State University's Starlight Summer Concert series, Sambuca Jazz Cafe, the Hi Life in Norcross and Luna's in Gainesville (where the band performs Nov. 10).

"Within a given two-hour period, we can do 20 tunes that are all different, rhythmically and harmonically," says Woods. "People are bored when they hear the same kind of rhythm happening song after song. We try to run down a line of tunes where each one is very different than the one before. Each tune is a different way of looking at things."

Tom Woods and Tomana (featuring Sam Skelton on woodwinds, Paul Fallat on drums and Gary Wilkins on bass) perform Fri.-Sat., Nov. 2-3, at Cino Grille, 4475 Roswell Road, Marietta. 7-11 p.m. Free. 770-509-5522. www.cinogrille.com. For more information on Woods, including sound clips from his CD, visit www.mindspring.com/~tewoods.

This column is a weekly feature covering music outside the Perimeter. E-mail or mail "outside" music news to Bryan Powell, 830 Josh Lane, Lawrenceville, GA 30045.

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