Quintet presents colorful and balanced performance
Phil Woods Quintet
Kresge Auditorium.By Dave Fox
Phil Woods is one of the elder statesmen of the jazz scene. A contemporary of Bird, Miles, and Coltrane, he has one of the most polished sounds of any living saxophonist. Influenced by Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, and of course Charlie Parker, Woods keeps the Bebop movement alive even as jazz paths diverge into world music, free jazz, and other forms. His belief in what he does keeps his music fresh and interesting.
Woods brought his quintet to MIT for a five-day residency, which included a performance with the Festival Jazz Ensemble on Saturday and separate clinics for high school and college students on Monday and Tuesday. As the finale, the quintet performed in Kresge Hall on Tuesday evening.
With Woods on alto saxophone, Brian Lynch on trumpet, Jim McNeely on piano, Steve Gilmore on bass, and Bill Goodwin on drums, the quintet presented two solid sets, using no amplification except a small amplifier for the upright bass. This gave the music a nice, intimate ambience. (Let's face it, jazz was "unplugged" long before MTV invented that rather disingenious term.)
The evening began with "Empty House," a composition by McNeely. This had a moderately quick tempo, with the piano and bass providing a sort of "drone" under a nicely-executed horn melody line. This dissolved into a piano interlude, followed by a point-counterpoint interplay between the horns.
Each of the melodic instruments offered solos in turn. High points included McNeely's subdued, cathedral-chime background colorations, and Woods' masterful alto solo incorporating altissimo work that blended seamlessly with the other registers of the horn.
The highlight of the first set was the ballad "Homage." This featured Woods' emotional interpretation of the melody, presented with a gorgeous, full alto saxophone tone. Woods is perhaps at his best on this kind of tune, as it showcases his beautiful sound, impeccable time sense, and formidable technical ability. McNeely added a beautiful solo to round out the piece.
Later in the evening, the quintet performed a highly-spirited version of Woods' composition, "Quill." This tune started with a rubato melody statement by the horns, gradually speeding up and building to a quick shuffle feel. The melody was rather sassy and presented in a nice growling fashion. Woods offered another nicely-executed solo, followed by a clean solo by Lynch. Throughout the solos, Goodwin played some interesting and daring drum colorations which helped drive up the excitement level. After the horn solos, McNeely presented another excellent piano solo.
At the conclusion of the tune, Woods announced the title, and explained that the tune was dedicated to alto saxophonist Gene Quill. He recounted a humorous story about Quill being heckled by a critic at the old New York City club, Birdland. The critic told Quill that he did "nothing but imitate Charlie Parker." Quill thought a moment, held out his horn, and told the critic, "Here. YOU imitate Charlie Parker!"
Woods then turned the spotlight over to his rhythm section, who played the next piece as a trio featuring McNeely. He showed off his mastery of the keyboard with some very melodic, highly technical playing. The contributions of Goodwin and Gilmore, as well as excellent communication and interplay among the three musicians, made this a beautiful, arresting musical statement.
On the whole, the Phil Woods Quintet presented a well-balanced two hours of interesting straight-ahead jazz. Woods was considerate of his sidemen, giving them each opportunities in the spotlight. He was also very friendly and gracious with the audience, as he explained the music and told the odd humorous tale. Unfortunately, the turnout was rather low; this is a shame considering how accessible Woods' music would be to the average listener. As always, we jazz lovers must be grateful for the support of this music by MIT's Council for the Arts and the other benevolent agencies that made Phil Woods' residency at MIT possible.