Phil Woods 1931-2015
Phil Woods, the great alto saxophonist, died yesterday, aged 83. He was featured on the first jazz LP I ever bought, with money saved from a paper round: East Meets West: The Birdland All Stars on Tour, recorded in 1956, with Kenny Dorham, Conte Candoli, Al Cohn, Hank Jones, John Simmons and Kenny Clarke. It was a second-hand copy, found on a market stall. Not a great album, but not a bad place to start, either. More important, Woods went on to play a wonderful solo on one of my very favourite records: the version of Willie Dixon’s “Spoonful” on the expanded reissue of The Individualism of Gil Evans, recorded in 1964.
I couldn’t begin to count the number of things I love about music that are contained in this 14-minute piece, from the deepest blues to the most sophisticated modern jazz. In strategic terms, it creates, intensifies and sustains an extraordinary mood that is quite unlike anything else I know. The tactical details include Gil’s Zen piano and his at times almost subliminal arrangement (those woodwinds painted across the horizon!), the magical combination of Paul Chambers’ calm bass and Elvin Jones’s brooding drums, Kenny Burrell’s super-cool guitar ruminations, Johnny Coles’ heart-piercing trumpet, the brilliant use of Harry Lookofsky’s tenor violin… and the sense of space, space, space, and time, time, time. Time and space became what Gil made of them, and never more so than here.
In the eighth minute the tension rises as the arrangement prepares the way for a passage of two and a half minutes in which Woods’s improvisation makes the most of the landscape Gil has established, exploiting the freedom offered by the modal framework to drill down from a different angle into the essence of the blues. As elegantly funky phrases coalesce into a double-time flurry, the solo reaches its climax — the climax of the whole 14 minutes, in effect — before meandering carefully back to its starting point, finally decompressing though a series of beautifully syncopated two-note phrases into a light-fingered imitation of the walking bass, deliberately lowering the temperature before an ensemble section leads to the drifting, dissolving finale.
I have no idea whether for Woods this represented more than just another good day’s work in the middle of a long and distinguished career. For me, it’s an example of perfection.