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Phil Woods 1931-2015

Phil Woods 2Phil 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.

10 Comments Post a comment
  1. Richard Harris #

    Very sad to hear this. I think his “Musique de Bois” from 1974 is such a wonderful rejuvenation with Jaki Byard, Richard Davis, and Alan Dawson. Booker Ervin’s old recording band, joy and stimulation.

    I only read a few weeks back that he had announced his retirement on stage as he had developed chronic emphysema.

    Those YouTube clips of him in Paris at the time of Quincey’s band are hugely evocative. Phil in his beret, just blowing.

    September 30, 2015
  2. peter jones #

    Furthermore, I suspect there are a fair few us who really value his contribution to Steely Dan’s “Dr Wu”, recorded back in the 70’s. What a wonderful solo…

    September 30, 2015
  3. Thanks Richard. I shall have to revisit this! I was introduced to Phil Woods’ craftsmanship in the 1970s with his masterful European Rhythm Machine band featuring Gordon Beck, Ron Matthewson or Henri Texier and Daniel Humair. I have a very well-worn copy of his Live At Montreux album (all compositions by Gordon Beck). I loved the rhythmic elasticity and the way that Woods and partners took the music out to the edge and then brought it home. In the 1980s I co-promoted Phil Woods with Birmingham Jazz at the city’s Grand Hotel. Woods was by then playing more straight-ahead material. We spent some time and money laying on a first class PA system for him and the band. He insisted it was turned off and they played the whole set acoustically. It was a beautiful evening of high quality, intimate jazz. Woods was one of jazz’s great improvisers, never short of things to say musically and just about everything he said was interesting.

    September 30, 2015
  4. Gerard F Tierney #

    Totally agree about “Spoonful” – one of the sexiest saxophone solos I have ever heard! And your correspondent is not wrong about “Dr Wu”…

    September 30, 2015
  5. And how many people remember he took the solo on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are”?

    September 30, 2015
  6. Phil Woods was a great saxophonist, and a masterful improviser. There are so many recordings with his participation that are memorable, and are mentioned above, but two that linger with me are “The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall”, and a more obscure Gary McFarland album with the suite “Winter Colors”. He takes the final solo in “Winter Colors” and enters with a breath taking 8 bar break, then proceeds to just soar above the rest of the ensemble. Bless you, Phil Woods!

    September 30, 2015
  7. Thanks for this wonderful version of ‘Spoonful’, Richard. A delight

    September 30, 2015
  8. There’s also his solo on I Remember Bird ,with Oliver Nelson

    October 1, 2015
  9. mick gold #

    Your account of Spoonful is beautifully analytic, it’s a wonderful modernist take on the blues.

    October 31, 2015
  10. Rick Stare #

    Just sitting here listening to Spoonful over and over while I Google to get soloist names. Such a masterful piece, it sets such a mood. Thanks for your analysis and your heartfelt comments about Phil Woods solo. Spot on. No one mentions the importance of the bass line in this composition, so thanks for appreciating that.

    February 6, 2017

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