Remember the good old days when jazz groups came out swinging and took no prisoners until the battle had been won? Well, why settle for memories when you can lay your cares aside for an hour or so and groove to Thick as Thieves,
the third and last album by the unrivaled and always-aggressive Bob Lark / Phil Woods
Quintet, recorded, as were the first two, in concert at Joe Segal's venerable Jazz Showcase in Chicago. This is as close to a jam session as jazz comes in these days of overdubs, outtakes and splices, and as close to unalloyed excellence as an in-person performance can be.
The way these sessions usually worked, according to Lark, was that the group would decide in advance what songs to play, then Woods would completely ignore the playlist, calling out a series of unrehearsed and un-charted jazz evergreens and standards from the Great American Songbook, challenging his bandmates to perform them spontaneously. The results are what is heard on Thick as Thieves
and the albums that preceded it, In Your Eyes
(2006) and Live at the Jazz Showcase
(2009). Not, as it turns out, an unpalatable recipe for success.
The concert begins and ends with classics by Charlie Parker
("Yardbird Suite," "Billie's Bounce"). Between them are two compositions by Lark (the sauntering "First Steps" and cool-tempered "Winter's Touch"), Thelonious Monk
's off-kilter "Rhythm-a-Ning" and enduring standards by Cole Porter ("I Love You") and Jerome Kern / Oscar Hammerstein II ("All the Things You Are"). As four of the seven run for more than eleven minutes, there is ample room for Woods, Lark and pianist Jim McNeely
to stretch, with more concise but no less persuasive solos from time to time by the other members of the "Phil Woods Quartet," bassist Steve Gilmore
and drummer Bill Goodwin
. Lark, the longtime director of the DePaul University Jazz Ensemble, is an eloquent and resourceful soloist (playing flugelhorn throughout), while Woods, who passed away in September 2015, needs no introduction to jazz fans anywhere. It could be said without censure that he was among the last of the "individualists," soloists whose unique sound and personal style made them almost instantly identifiable. Think Zoot Sims
, Stan Getz
or Art Pepper
This is a concert wherein everyone, not only the leaders, is at the top of his game. And when appraising musicians of this caliber, that is saying a lot. Five stars for this bright and tasteful session, with no hesitation or second thoughts.