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CD Review: Thick as Thieves-Bob Lark: Phil Woods Quintet

Bob Lark – Flugelhorn

Phil Woods – Alto sax

Jim McNeely – Piano

Steve Gilmore – Bass

Bill Goodwin – Drums

Recorded live at The Jazz Showcase, May 2009

A confession: I was never into Phil Woods. While that is probably a slam at my jazz credentials, I think a defensible reason may exist.

Phil Woods might be the most often recorded major jazz artist of the late 20th Century. His bop-laden alto chops, and perseverance in the face of trends and change, endeared him to a large contingent of jazz faithful, especially those of my older generation.

But perhaps that is the point. Woods won practically every readers poll amassed by popular jazz publications, and it got to the point of why even wonder. Even though people like Kenny Garrett, Sherman Irby, Steve Coleman, Jim Snidero and others were worthy of consideration, Woods always won, which suggests a lot of things.

Truth is, of course, that Woods was terrific at what he always did. But there was a kind of “once you’ve heard one thing, you’ve heard it all” element to his output. Once someone becomes the best, maintaining it can become its own boredom. I think I just got bored with bop perfection, and I always had Charlie Parker and Sonny Stitt recordings to listen to.

This personal opening is meant not as a caveat but as a background context for my next statement: What is purported to be the last time Phil Woods will be heard on an album release is, really, a fine way for the past jazz hero to inhabit, finally, our collective consciousness. When one knows the story behind Thick as Thieves—a live recording by the Bob Lark: Phil Woods Quintet—one can at least appreciate what the older generation knows about jazz performance.

If Lark’s album notes can be trusted (and why not?), the plan to record this group at the Jazz Showcase in May 2009 was to entrust to tape several of Lark’s compositions that the band had scrupulously rehearsed. When everyone showed up on that Sunday afternoon, Woods apparently had other plans. See, Woods had what his cohort Lark calls a “crusty” personality; no doubt baked throughout many years of having to put up with jazz modernization and, perhaps, people like me.

Woods decided the group would play other things, at least for a while. I suspect he was tired of being trapped in someone else’s composition. I also think that he, as well as others, thought that jazz composition had become too derivative of outside genres and needed a kick in the pants.

So, Woods steps out and begins playing the classic “All the Things You Are,” which inexplicably does not lead off this album (it’s number 5). Maybe the fact that it is a wonderful version that demonstrates Lark and his guys’ ability to think on the spot and not be dependent on charts was the reason it is delayed, as though it’s a culminating result? As for Woods’ intention, it seemed to be an intentional life lesson. Lark seems to believe that. In his crusty way, reports Lark, Woods tells him, “Trust your ears Bob, not your eyes.”

The result—five generic tunes coupled with two Lark compositions—makes Thick as Thieves a worthy addition to your jazz library, if only to let Woods have his last word on the nature of jazz performance, that structure has to be embodied so that spontaneity comes from within.

For this reviewer, aside from “All the Things You Are,” the group’s rendition of Cole Porter’s “I Love You” will be the model on which I remember Mr. Woods. His performance, sharp as a razor, smooth as silk, and generated from a voluminous internal library, reminded me of why I preferred early Sonny Rollins over his pedantic latter years. Woods was certainly pedantic, too, but here it was all about invention and sampling, not drawn out extrapolations. With his tough love, Woods wanted Lark and his mates to come on in and find the magic.

Mostly they do. My ears hear able bassist Steve Gilmore responding masterfully in “All the Things…” while struggling to invent during yet another version of “Yardbird Suite”—Woods’ probably necessary nod to Bird for the benefit of Joe Segal and the memory of his first wife Chan. Goodwin contributes wonderfully during Lark’s Miles Davis Kind of Blue-derived “First Steps,” on which Woods adapts and acquiesces to a masterly representation of Cannonball Adderley’s bluesy, soulful style.

Lark, who writes he was shocked and a bit hurt by his friend’s intrusive tough love, does his best to overcome the angst. I hear, in his playing, a young Miles being schooled by Bird himself. The surprise development may have elevated his performance on his own compositions, especially “Winter’s Touch,” a ballad enhanced by veteran pianist Jim McNeely’s gentle prelude and Goodwin’s waltz-like tempo. Lark could be excused for a slightly rough first few notes until he settles down, as though he realizes he is in his own world. The sweetness of his tone exudes confidence in his band and his voice.

Compared to the other efforts, Monk’s “Rhythm-a-Ning” and a second Bird tune, “Billie’s Bounce,” come off as more interesting than superlative, given the narrative. Woods seems to be aiming at something with the use of Monk, a challenge that is pulled off about as well as could be expected, though not boring in the attempt. By this time Woods is in complete control, and, in his contrary way, he lets the song be all Lark’s quartet—no Woods—as if the cagey veteran left them in the lurch to see what they would do without his nudging presence. Lark does a nice job with the opening refrain, with Goodwin’s strong walking bass a lead-in to McNeely’s effervescent solo that must have been stressful. But the beat was strong, and drummer Bill Goodwin keeps pushing his friends. One can imagine Lark turning around afterward, with an incredulous “What’s next?” look on his face.

“Billie’s Bounce,” coming in this context, is less pulsating than Bird would provide, but it gives Lark and Woods common ground, as if it were Woods’ way of starting to make amends. Gilmore and Goodwin settle into a blues swing mode, and Lark rides it with one of his best solos. Woods follows with an appropriate blues statement that takes advantage of the pace to demonstrate his masterful technique. It’s not his bop, really, but the output of a man who ultimately wants to make peace with his friends.

I get it. Jazz tradition rests in improvisation built on melody and beat and memory, with less dependence on stifling paper. “Ears, not eyes.” New composers should keep that in mind, even when they evolve into new forms and approaches. Thanks for the late lesson, Mr. Woods.


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