For his sixth album as leader, the current four being on Jazzed Media, Bob Lark has seriously spread his producer's wings and succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. Surrounding himself with A-list friends - such as altoist Phil Woods, pianist Jim McNeely, and bassist Rufus Reid; trombonist Thomas Matta, who contributed some key arrangements; Lark's favorite engineer, Tom Miller, who is also a musician; and most fortunately, the erstwhile concertmaster of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Samuel Magad, who leads, and is part of, a string ensemble.
Dr. Lark, who directs DePaul University's Jazz Studies Program, emphasizes beauty of melody while stressing the role of jazz in embellishing those melodies as much as possible, utilizing a nonet, strings, even a drum-less trio, to vary the timbres. That's where the arrangers figure prominently; so do the players where a chart is created by "mutual agreement" just before being recorded -- many of which here proved to be first takes.
The first sounds you hear are among the most distinctive and they occur in an ordinarily corny throwaway: "Blue Skies." Lark's flugelhorn cadenza is an immediate attention-getter, contrasted by the lush scoring for six strings by Matta ("stacked," as Lark calls it, aka overdubbing, to achieve a more vibrant blend.) "Winter's Touch," a Lark original, is pure poetry, marked by tricky key changes and some of Reid's best comping under McNeely's piano. Reid's best swinging is heard on Cole Porter's "All of You" when he leaps down from a high pedal point to a low (and dirty), muscular walk sounding like Ledroy Vinnegar. Some firm, correct bass playing by Erich Hochberg on Phil Woods' original, "Rava Nova," is enhanced by baritonist Ted Hogarth who anchors the nonet with a delicious, repetitive lick that seems to be doubled by (bass trombonist?) Matta. Woods' chart on his classic "Goodbye Mr. Evans" is the nonet's high point thanks to Phil's biting solo.
Best efforts for the strings include "Cathy's Song," Lark's loving tribute to his wife, proving once again Matta's string voicing prowess, as well as another Matta chart, "My Shining Hour," which reveals his ability to make strings virtually swing thanks to those shifting rhythms on the melody of the bridge.