Phil Woods Quintet.

By Bob Bahr

On February 3 at Bellannine's Wyatt Hall, alto sax legend Phil Woods demonstrated his brand of jazz for a couple of hours. At the beginning of his second set, Woods acknowledged the half-full performance hall by shielding his eyes from the stage lights and muttering, "Must be the war." Then he chuckled and launched into "The Genius," trombonist Hal Crook's song dedicated to Thelonius Monk.

The music of Woods' quintet, in terms of jazz's chronology, took a left turn shortly after hard bop. The quintet's treatment of "How My Heart Sings," "Willow Weep for Me," "From This Moment On," and "I Loves You, Porgy," demonstrated strong bop roots. But the group varied their sound with the infusion of Third World rhythms and inventive written sections, bringing their jazz into the Nineties. Asked about his music's influences and direction, Woods said simply, "We play tomorrow's music." Would you characterize it as influenced by hard bop jazz'?, "No, no. I don't like that term," Woods said. "We play American improvised music."

Perhaps Woods views the term "jazz" as a gangly, inaccurate cliche and one listen to a Phil Woods solo will show you how Woods feels about cliches. Woods seemingly hasn't found a musical cliche that he likes enough to include in his book of licks. Or maybe he just has so much to say that he doesn't want to clutter it up with fillers and recycled licks.

And Woods' solos do have a lot to say. Woods picked up the clarinet for Benny Carter's "Just A Mood," showing mastery at a second instrument. With Crook making his valve trombone 'growl' with 'la plumber's helper and Woods playing melodic passages on his black clarinet, the quintet swung with quirky brilliance.

Bassist Steve Gilmore was impeccable in both sets, bowing the upright so eloquently it sounded like a third horn voice and walking nimbly through waltz-time tunes with great aplomb. Gilmore utilized all the registers on the bass in his walking and soloing, speaking volumes in jazz's bubbly musical language.

Bill Goodwin performed two drum solos of considerable length, two celebrations of rhythm spiked with both playfulness and brooding primal rumblings. Goodwin's drumming in the quintet was stellar, magnifying the beats and building the crescendos in the other players' solos. His playing defended and bolstered the pulse while showing imagination and counterpoint. The small drum set that Goodwin borrowed from Bellarmine was perfect for the quintet's acoustic sound.

The band's stubborn acousticity (only Gilmore's acoustic bass was amplified) was overalls successful, with some disservice done to Jim McNeely's piano work. McNeely recently filled the big shoes of Hal Galper in the quintet's stable lineup and his fluid playing showed why he was chosen. His dizzying speed and sweet execution dazzled the mind as much as the phrases he chose to play. Although it was hard at times to hear him, McNeely's lines and statements seemed versed in the Michael Brecker school of jazz, with an intimacy that was distinctly his own.

McNeely's relative greenness showed at the end of his solos, where the written form of the songs demanded a return to a short chorus. When the horns came in at the end of his solo, they seemed to cut him off in mid-thought, perhaps a sign that he's not completely familiar with the quintet and its songbook yet.

Trombonist Crook was the second major voice of the quintet after Woods, chattering with Woods' alto sax on occasion and showing considerable speed on an instrument that isn't conducive to fast runs; An extended unaccompanied solo by Crook on "Willow Weep for Me" was abruptly. stopped by an offstage cymbal crash, sending Crook into laughter and prompting Woods to ask how he gets such sounds out of his trombone.

Throughout, Woods sang out as an original sax player, playing thoughtful statements with a full, true sound. Woods stood upstage with legs slightly spread and head back and blew with all his body's strength. He ducked and swung his horn up and down, side to side, as if one needed to shake it to make it work. Alternately looking like a weaving snake charmer and a man fighting hard to keep the sax in his hands (or trying to throw the sax out of his hands?), Woods seemed to cajole the horn to make the notes he wanted. When asked if his movement with the horn has any meaning, Woods responded, "I haven't the faintest idea."

Woods wasn't in a hurry to share any secrets about his music. But his performance with the Phil Woods Quintet made no secret of why he was named best alto saxophonist in Downbeat's readers poll. Woods is the real McCoy, a jazz master.