In Praise of Phil Woods & the Quintet…

I just finished a five night gig here at home (NYC) with the Phil Woods Quintet, who I’ve been playing with for almost 18 years now (I started with Phil in March 1992 at Chicago’s Jazz Showcase, the one in the Blackstone Hotel). We haven’t been playing as much in the last few years as when I started with Phil, and this was the first gig in a few months for us. It’s always an occasion for me to play with Phil, and every time the Quintet convenes special music is made. A few thoughts about this unique group:

No band out here today plays a more varied repertoire than the Quintet. In five nights of two shows each at Birdland, not one quintet tune was repeated (a couple of the features of myself and pianist Bill Mays were). In my 30 + years as a professional jazz musician this is an unique situation – and it’s been the norm for a week long gig with the Quintet for most of my tenure. This is possible due to the rarefied skills of the seasoned musicians that comprise the Quintet (along with Phil, Bill Mays, and myself, drummer Bill Goodwin and bassist Steve Gilmore, who have been part of the PW5 since the beginning for an incredible 34 years) and the method that we are able to practice in performance. We have a book of more than 100 tunes that Phil will call sets from, and we are able to recall the style and feeling of each chart even if we haven’t seem that piece of music for months. Indeed, we often will bring new pieces of music into the gig,  sight read them down for the first time in front of the audience, and be able to give a convincing performance. We have done record dates in that fashion; no rehearsal, just put the charts on the stand, run over the “head” and other ensemble sections one time, and record. These are musicians who have played and listened to a lot of music and have the skills of the studio ace alongside the creativity and soul of a top jazz player.

You’d have to possess these kind of skills to hang on the same stage as Phil. I’ve never played with anybody with more musicianship; he sets quite a standard and it’s been a great thing for me to try to match it. Every time than I hear him play is a marvel to me. I think he is at a peak of musical expressivity and control now, which is saying a lot. I’ve spent a lot of time on the bandstand with legends (Horace, Buhaina, Eddie P.) and the experience of playing with Phil has been and is every bit as important to me. I keep growing as a musician from this encounter!

This kind of music is an endangered species that should be heard more and cherished for the health of the jazz idiom. There’s still a place for literate, swinging music played by experienced musicians in the tradition, and there is still a lot to be said creatively in this form. Phil, Jimmy Heath, Benny Golson, and other such bandleaders should be sought out and listened to, jazz fans!

Our next engagement will be at the end of May at Dizzy’s, unless something comes up before. It’s a shame that people don’t have more of an opportunity to hear this important group and one of the very greatest exponents of the art of jazz, Phil Woods.

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