Phil Woods by Alex Henderson
Phil Woods is no stranger to big bands. Having been employed by such greats as Benny Goodman, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Gene Krupa and Charlie garnet, he could easily be called an expert in the field. And yet, the hard-blowing alto saxophonist and part-time clarinetist, now 65, considers Celebration! recorded with the festival Orchestra, his first “real” or “official” big band studio album as a leader.
“I did an orchestral album for Verve in the early 70s called Round Trip that had string arrangements, and I’d been a sideman on many big band dates in the 50s and 60s,” explains Woods, who has recorded dozens of albums over the years. “And I’ve done four and five-horn stuff, but this is the first time I’ve done what I consider a bona fide big band album where I did most of the writing and arranging. Round Trip didn’t really have a direction, whereas Celebration! does. It’s been a lifelong dream, as they say.”
“The subject of my doing a big band recording only came up within the past year, although it had been in the back of my mind for years,” Woods continues. “The expense is always a consideration. If I’d had to do it in New York, it would have been too expensive. But being able to do it locally greatly reduced the expense.” For Woods, “locally” is The Pocono Mountains in Northeastern Pennsylvania, a few hours north of Philadelphia. Woods has lived there since 1974, and Celebration! was recorded not in Greenwich Village or Tribeca, but in the small town of Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania. Celebration! was named after the Celebration Of The Arts (COTA)–the Poconos-based jazz festival he founded with trombonist Rick Chamberlain and businessman Ed Joubert in 1978.
That festival led to the formation of the big band heard on this CD, the Festival Orchestra. In fact, all of the players (who include Rick Chamberlain, pianist Bill Charlap, trumpeter Brian Lynch, among others) employed on Celebration! have some connection to the area. From Wayne Shorter’s “Nefertiti” and the pop standard “Willow Weep For Me” to such Woods staples as “Reet’s Neet,” “All Bird’s Children” and his theme song, “How’s Your Mama?,” Celebration! reminds us that not all hard-swinging jazz is created in Manhattan.
“You don’t have to be right in the heart of Times Square to contribute to jazz–not with today’s technology,” Woods stresses. “Jazz has to thrive on the local level–it can’t just be based around New York or L.A. or Chicago. I know a lot of great players who are quite content to stay in Cleveland or Columbus. Jazz has become much too international for musicians to focus only on New York. These days, you really have to understand the European and the Japanese markets, and you can do that from anywhere. Jazz is alive and well in a lot of locations other than New York.”
“I like the idea of thinking globally but acting locally,” continues Woods, who has been recording for Concord since 1987. “In The Poconos, we have some excellent musicians with ties to the area-including Dave Liebman, Keith Jarrett and Herbie Green. Al Cohn was living here before he died. The list is long. If you’re a jazz musician, it’s a good area. The guys on Celebration! are local in the sense that they all have ties to the community, though some of them work in New York. George Young, the alto player, is on ‘Saturday Night Live’ and appears on many records. Another sax player on the album, Nelson Hill, was with Maynard Ferguson’s band. They’re all experienced guys, which is amazing because The Poconos is basically a resort area.”
One thing Celebration! won’t be accused of is functioning as background music. Whether savoring Charlie Parker’s influence on “All Bird’s Children” or showing how seductive a ballad player he can be on “Goodbye Mr. Evans” (an ode to the influential jazz pianist Bill Evans), the CD finds Woods adhering to the rule he’s adhered to since coming on the scene in the 1950s: whatever you play, be sure to swing hard and passionately.
It was during the 1950s that Woods, after studying at the prestigious Juilliard School Of Music, first earned a reputation as a big toned, aggressive representative of East Coast hard bop. The type of subtlety and restraint that characterized jazz’s “Cool School” held no interest for the emotionally direct Woods, who defined hard bop on the alto along with Cannonball Adderley, Jackie McLean and Gene Quill (with whom he engaged in many heated and legendary alto sax battles). Early Woods dates for Prestige like 1955’s Woodlore and 1956’s Pairing Off point to the fact that while he was always a disciple of Charlie Parker, he developed a richly appealing sound of his own early on.
Over the years, he played with Ben Webster, Benny Carter, Thelonious Monk, Hank Jones, Red Garland, Donald Byrd, Clark Terry, Bill Evans, Oliver Nelson, Clark Terry and many other all-time jazz greats. Outside of jazz, he has done session work for Aretha Franklin, Carly Simon, Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Steeley Dan.
With the rise of modal post-loop and the avant-garde in the 1960s, Woods remained a hard bopper at heart, but experimented with newer forms of jazz. After briefly exploring avant-garde jazz and electric fusion in the early 70s, Woods made a passionate and triumphant return to hard bop in 1973, when he started a critically acclaimed quartet with pianist Mike Melillo, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin. If anything, Woods’ time away from bop ad made him an even stronger hard bopper. “I think all things come in a circle,” he theorizes. “I guess it’s all part of finding out who you are. I don’t consider myself a bebopper exclusively, and I’ve played with polka bands, Dixieland bands and symphony orchestras. But I’m certainly not ashamed of being called a bobopper. If you want to call me a hardcore bebopper, that’s fine. I’m a hardcore bebopper with a heart of gold.”
Melillo stayed with Woods until 1981 (when he was replaced by Hal Galper, a fine pianist who did some solid dates as a leader for Concord), and his group became a quintet when Tom Harrell came on board in 1983. When Harrell left in the early 90s, Woods recruited the hard-blowing Brian Lynch, formerly of Art Blakey’s Jazz Messengers. In 1997, Woods’ working group consists of Lynch, pianist Bill Charlap and original members Gilmore and Goodwin.
This is the lineup found on his 1996 recoding on Concord Mile High Jazz: Live In Denver. “How many jazz bands have had the same drummer and the same bass player for 23 years?,” he asks. “You could say the quintet is an old established firm.”
Woods’ quintet can also be heard on such Concord CDs as Bouquet and Bop Stew (both recorded live at the Fujitsu-Concord Festival in Tokyo in 1987), and 1990’s All Bird’s Children. When his quintet was united with trombonist Hal Crook, baritone saxman Nick Brignola and saxman Nelson Hill, the result was the octet he calls his Little Big Band–which was documented by Concord on 1988’s Evolution and by Chesky on 1990’s Real Life. In 1991, Concord captured Woods in an intimate duet with pianist Jim McNeeley on their tribute to long-time Duke Ellington alto saxophonist Johnny Hodges Flowers For Hodges.
The mid-199Os have found Woods celebrating the music of South America on For Astor & Elis (a Chesly date inspired by Brazilian singer Elis Regina and the late Argentinean tango master Astor Piazzola) and forming a two- alto front line with the seminal Benny Carter (with whom he first played in 1962) on the Evening Star release Another Time, Another Place. Woods and Carter’s 1989 session for MusicMasters, My Man Benny, My Man Phil was so successful artistically that their reunion was inevitable.
In 1997, Woods is as busy as ever. Though he thinks of The Quintet as his main focus, Woods also has plans to record The Phil Woods Sax Machine (a four-alto group featuring “Young Lions” Vincent Herring, Jon Gordon and Jesse Davis that has toured Europe extensively) and would also like to record some more studio dates with The Festival Orchestra and The Little Big Band. For Woods, a four-alto band isn’t unprecedented–in the 1950s, he joined forces with Gene Quill, Sahib Shihab and Hal Stein for the Prestige album Four Altos.
“All of these projects are like my children, man,” Woods explains. “The Phil Woods Quintet is my primary thrust, but I’m also very fond of The Sax Machine, The Little Big Band and The Festival Orchestra. They’re all like my children. I’ve raised all of them, and each birth was difficult. You could say I have a lot of irons in the fire right now.” TRACK LISTING
Goodbye Mr. Evans
Willow Weep For Me
All Bird’s Children
My Man Benny
Perils Of Poda
How’s Your Mama? FEATURING
Phil Woods – alto saxophone
Woodwinds: Nelson Hill, George Young, Tom Hamilton, Lew Delgado, Jim Buckley
Trumpets: Ken grader, Brian Lynch, Jan Betz, Pat Dorian
Trombones: Rick Chamberlain, Hal Crook, Keith O’Quinn, km Daniels
Rhythm Section: Bill Charlap – piano; Steve Gilmore – bass; Bill Goodwin – drums
Phil Woods Concord Discography CCD-4770 Celebration! CCD-4739 Mile High Jazz CCD-4699 Into The Woods-The Best Of Phil Woods CCD-4485 Flowers For Hodges (with Jim McNeely) CCD-4441 All Bird's Children CCD-4408 Flash CCD-4377 Bouquet CCD-4361 Evolution CCD-4345 Bop Stew
See Also: The Official Phil WoodsWeb Site