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New Phil WoodsThe news hit me hard. Alto sax great Phil Woods had died at the age of 83. I learned about it as I listened to WXPN while driving to work. Then the DJ played Steely Dan’s “Dr. Wu.”

That’s the song that introduced me to Phil Woods, as I’ve written about before. It was my gateway drug, so to speak. Slowly but surely, I began to accumulate his records, although I still have only a fraction of his entire output. The first album I bought was Floresta Canto, a collection of Brazilian-flavored songs done with an orchestra. But here’s the thing: I didn’t like it. With all those strings, it was too flowery for my tastes. I felt, truth be told, a little embarrassed when I listened to it. I was a teenager, and, like most teenagers, was very self-conscious about what was cool and what was not. An album of string-infused bossa nova songs was not cool.

I bet I would like Floresta Canto now, if I still had it. But I don’t, because I went back to the record store and exchanged it for another Phil Woods album they had in stock. This one was titled The New Phil Woods Album. I liked it much better, with the exception of the cover of Janis Ian’s “At Seventeen,” that maudlin ode to self-pity. Even without lyrics, I still don’t like it much, although Woods does a nice enough job. But I loved the album’s opener, an 11-minute opus called “The Sun Suite.” It kicked off with Woods’ soaring, full-bore saxophone and then worked through various movements. Sure, there were a lot of strings and stuff in the middle, but in the final portion Woods and the band really started to swing, and it ended with some great saxophone honks. The album also had a superb medley of “Chelsea Bridge/Johnny Hodges” on side 2, with Woods playing some of it on soprano sax. This is still one of my favorite pieces of music, ever. I always thought this piece sounded so incredibly sophisticated, with some really tricky passages that Woods and his band navigated with ease. When I made tapes to play at my wedding reception, I put the medley at the end of one cassette, thinking it would provide a nice, classy break from the dance music so people could visit the buffet tables. It still sounds great.

I am not a very knowledgeable jazz aficionado, but there’s something about the Phil Woods saxophone sound that I find incredibly appealing. He had his own sound, his own voice. Although Woods was often compared to Charlie Parker (and the fact that he was once married to Parker’s widow, Chan, made those comparisons even easier to make), I preferred Woods. I thought his sax playing was more vibrant, more human. Hearing Phil Woods appear on a recording—like Thelonious Monks’s “Friday the 13th” from The Thelonious Monk Orchestra at Town Hall—was like walking into a party of strangers and suddenly hearing a familiar voice from across the room.

ShowboatSo, as I said, I picked up a few Phil Woods albums over the years. I remember my joy when I found two of them—Song for Sisyphus and I Remember—in a cutout bin at a store on Hollywood Boulevard. I couldn’t believe my luck when I discovered the two-disk Live from the Showboat at the big Goodwill book and record sale at the Convention Center in Washington, D.C. I had wanted that one for years. I had seen it at the record store where I got my first Woods fix, but it was a double album and a little out of my price range then.

Once I made the move from vinyl to CDs, I added a few of his disks to the collection. I even have one of his albums—Evolution—on cassette. It has liner notes by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen, who recalled the time when he first heard Woods, on Monk’s At Town Hall. “About halfway through a particularly wry Monk tuned called ‘Friday the 13th,’ there was a solo by what had to be the toughest alto player I’d ever heard, a real gunner, but smart and funny, too,” wrote Fagen. “The basic style was out of Bird and Cannonball, but this was a true original.” Fagen called Woods “the greatest living alto player.”

I was fortunate enough to see Woods live a few times. I saw him in Washington at One Step Down, a tiny jazz club on the outskirts of Georgetown. It was literally below street level, with low ceilings and booths lining the wall opposite the stage. As I recall, we had the booth right in front of the stage. I saw him a few years ago in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, in a gig at the Hilton hotel’s ballroom. At intermission, Woods sat in an easy chair in the hallway outside the ballroom, just hanging out. I tried to nerve myself up to say hello—he certainly seemed approachable enough—but I just couldn’t figure out what to say. I mean, I’m sure he’s heard it all before. So I let him alone and spared us both from the potential awkwardness.

Beth Ann and me in Paris, ready to find Phil Woods.

Beth Ann and me in Paris, ready to find Phil Woods.

My most memorable Phil Woods gig happened in the suburbs of Paris. Beth Ann, my then-girlfriend (and now my lovely wife) had won airline tickets to Amsterdam at a work event. We figured we’d fly to Amsterdam, hang out for a few days, and then take a train to Paris. Which we did. And at some point, as we were sitting on a train at a Métro station, I looked out the window and saw a huge poster advertising what seemed to be a city-wide jazz festival. One of the names listed jumped out at me. Phil Woods! But the train pulled out of the station before I could get any more information.

Somehow we figured out that the Woods show would take place while we were in town, and that we could get tickets at Tower Records. It was funny, but when we went to buy the tickets, guitarist Elliot Randall—who plays the solo on Steely Dan’s “Reeling in the Years”—was doing an in-store performance. All roads lead to Steely Dan, I guess. Then we had to figure out how to get to the show. It was way outside of town, but reachable by Métro. So we dressed up in our finest duds and got on the train.

Woods ticketAfter a long train ride, we reached our stop and figured we would just follow the crowd to find the venue. It turned out to be in a school gymnasium not far from the station. Outside in the lobby, a stand was selling bread and cheese and, of course, wine. We listened to the show while eating our bread and cheese, drinking our wine, and feeling very Parisian. Keep in mind that, even though I had taken French all through high school, my knowledge of the language was pretty much restricted to the lyrics of LaBelle’s “Lady Marmalade.” Getting there felt like something of a triumph.

Watching Woods play, I was always amazed by how easy he made it seem. He may have been tossing of these great flurries of notes, but he made it seem as natural as breathing, as fluid as quicksilver. The music just seemed to flow out of the saxophone. The guy was phenomenal.

There’s a video on YouTube of a master class that Woods taught in 2012. He mentions what is probably his most famous piece of recorded music, the sax solo on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are.” Woods says a kid once came up to him and asked, “Are you the guy on the Billy Joel record?” Woods told him he was. The kid said, “Have you ever done anything on your own?” Woods says he keeps that statement on his “humble wall.” Not that he had reason to be humble. Phil Woods was one of the greats.

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Steely Dan ticket 001 God bless the Internet! Recently I found a site that had a bunch of unreleased songs from Steely Dan available for download. So download I did, and I put this treasure trove on my iPod so I could listen to the songs during my morning walk.

Maybe it wasn’t Steely Dan’s best stuff, which explains why none of it was ever officially released. A lot of the songs were alternate versions of material from Katy Lied, many in somewhat rough form. The rest was work that never made it onto Gaucho, including a version of “Third World Man” with different lyrics (and a different title). As a long-time Steely Dan fanatic, though, I found it all fascinating. As I made my rounds around the neighborhood and listened to these tracks it made me ponder my long affair with the band.

I became a Steely Dan fan during high school, that awkward period when your musical choices become a vital cornerstone in the persona you fabricate for the outside world. Stoners carved “Zeppelin Rules” into school desks with pocket knives. Jocks gravitated to Springsteen, who gave off the frat-boy vibe that would accompany them through college. Self-styled bohemians listened to stuff like Gentle Giant.

My band was Steely Dan.

Critics usually described Steely Dan with words like “smart,” “literate” and “sophisticated.” The Dan were the sardonic hipsters snickering in the back of the rock-and-roll classroom, mocking everyone with wisecracks no one quite understood. Even before they started incorporating more jazz influences into their work, Steely Dan gained a reputation as rock’s brainiacs. Their solos were “tasty.” Their lyrics could be willfully obscure. They were often called “cynical.”

Back in high school, I liked to think I, too, was smart, literate and sophisticated. Cynical too. So naturally, I gravitated to Steely Dan.

When it debuted with Can’t Buy a Thrill in 1972, Steely Dan was an actual band, composed of Donald Fagen (keyboards, vocals), Walter Becker (bass), Jeff “Skunk” Baxter and Danny Dias (guitars), Jim Hodder (drums) and David Palmer (sensitive vocals). Fagen and Becker, the songwriters and principal members, eventually ditched the band and turned Steely Dan into a revolving collection of session men. That tendency had been on display even on the first album, where hired gun Elliot Randall provided the stinging guitar solos on “Reeling in the Years.”

I came to Steely Dan somewhat late. I had certainly heard “Reeling in the Years” and “Do It Again,” the two hits from Can’t Buy a Thrill. “Rikki Don’t Lose That Number,” from the third Steely Dan album, Pretzel Logic, had been nearly inescapable on the radio in 1974, the summer I turned 14, but Elton John—long before he was replaced by the banal clone that wrote songs for The Lion King—was my favorite artist at that point.

Katy Lied came out in 1975. My older brother got a copy of the album for free when he bought a new turntable. This was the Steely Dan album that turned me into a true fan. Especially “Dr. Wu.” The song had me from the exotic opening piano chords to the final notes of the Phil Woods sax solo in the fade. In the living room my parents had a huge console stereo—about the size and shape of a railroad boxcar—and there I would play the Woods solo over and over again, slowly turning up the volume as the song faded so I could hear every note.

I received Pretzel Logic for Christmas one year, and I bought Can’t Buy a Thrill at a record store in Waterville, Maine, on a beautiful spring day. My home town of Augusta had no record store at that time, so my brother, a friend and I rode our bikes 20 miles to Waterville. I bought Can’t Buy a Thrill at the record store there, secured it to my bike with a bungee cord, and rode the 20 miles back home.

I was late discovering Countdown to Ecstasy, Steely Dan’s second album. One winter night at my family’s cabin in northern Maine I was up late listening to the only radio signal that could snake its way through the mountains, and I heard a strange, ghostly song through the static. I thought it was Steely Dan, but it sounded more ominous than anything I knew of theirs. There was with a weird chant going on in the background and Fagen’s vocals were low and throaty.

The song turned out to be “Show Biz Kids” from Countdown to Ecstasy. My brother eventually bought a copy of the record on eight-track tape, at a drugstore in downtown Augusta where they kept the eight-tracks in a locked case as though they were expensive jewelry. At some point I made the bike trip to Waterville and bought my own vinyl copy. I thought it was especially cool because the lyric sheet had cryptic descriptions of each song. For “Razor Boy” it read, “The legendary ‘Giant Girlfriend’ of the Camden, New Jersey area sees the spectre of Benny King as a child in a nightmare of cosmic proportions.” I had no idea what that meant, but it sure sounded smart, literate, and sophisticated. Maybe a little cynical too.

With the purchase of Countdown I had caught up with Steely Dan’s output. For my next Dan fix I had to wait for the release of The Royal Scam. It came out in the spring of 1976. A small record store called Sonnet and Song had finally opened at a mall in Augusta, and my mother drove me over after school. And she had to drive me back again because my copy had a catch in the middle of the Larry Carlton guitar solo on “Don’t Take Me Alive.” The replacement album caught at the exact same spot. I finally had to resort to stacking pennies on the tone arm to force the needle through the catch.

Anyone remember tone arms? They were from was literally another century, another world, one in which there were no CDs, no MP3s, no iPods. At home we played vinyl records. On the road we listened to eight-tracks in my brother’s Buick Skylark, which always reeked of cherry incense. We often had to shove a pack of matches beneath the tape to keep it playing properly, and many eight-tracks met ignominious ends at the side of the road, magnetic tape innards blowing in the wind.

By this time I was becoming a Steely Dan completionist. I read everything I could find about the band. At the library I found album reviews on microfilmed copies of Rolling Stone. I bought my first and only copy of The Village Voice—a heady dose of New Yawk for my little Maine city—because it had a Steely Dan article (alongside one about Andrea True, the former porn star who had a hit with “More, More, More.”) I read Williams S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch, because that’s where the name Steely Dan originated. In the book, Steely Dan was a steam-powered dildo—crushed, Burroughs wrote, by a bull dyke in Yokohama. Did reading Naked Lunch make me smart, literate and sophisticated? Maybe not, but I thought it did.

Aja came out in the fall of my senior year. For weeks I telephoned Sonnet and Song—teetering on the edge of going out of business—to see if the album was in. Again and again it wasn’t. Then one Saturday morning at home I stood on the top of the stairs, transfixed, as I heard to a song coming from the big console radio down in the living room. It was “Aja.” A few days later my clock radio woke me up a song that had to be new Steely Dan. Half-awake, still in a blur, my hair sticking out at all angles, I sat up and listened. Surely that was Fagen singing? I turned out be “Peg,” the new single. I bought Aja the day it reached Sonnet and Song. The album provided the soundtrack for my senior year.

Steely Dan didn’t come out with anything new during my first two years of college, unless you count “Here at the Western World,” a previously unreleased track included on a two-record set called Steely Dan’s Greatest Hits. For weeks the completionist in me wrestled with my practical side. Should I shell out the bucks for a two-record set just to get one song? In the end I didn’t. Maybe my Steely Dan fever had broken. Most likely I was just broke.

I completed my sophomore year at a small college in Maine and transferred to the University of Southern California to study film. Becker and Fagen had been transplanted Easterners too, and sometimes I walked past their studio, the Village Recorder in Santa Monica. One wall had a beautiful mural of post-apocalyptic California, a wasted land highlighted by a broken section of a ruined freeway that jutted into the air. It reminded me of a line from “My Old School” about California tumbling into the sea.

I never bumped into Becker and Fagen, though. By then they were back East, where they had recorded the album that will forever mean California to me.

“Drive west on Sunset to the sea,” was the opening line of Gaucho. I made that drive on occasion. I felt the same Santa Ana winds the chorus sings about in “Babylon Sisters,” and, as a cinema student, I got just the briefest glimpse of the show-biz, drug-addled lives that Becker and Fagen chronicled on the album. For a time I worked as an intern at a major Hollywood trade paper and even attended a record-release party at the home of producer Ken Scott, whose name I recognized as one of David Bowie’s producers. He even had a gold record for Aladdin Sane on one wall.

But even as I cruised the freeways and visited the Valley and enjoyed my brief slice of southern California decadence, my puritan New England soul was rebelling. Like Becker and Fagen, I felt like a stranger in a strange land. Shortly after I graduated with a frivolous degree in cinema studies, I moved back East. I can go back to Los Angeles anytime, though, simply by playing Gaucho.

I’ve seen Steely Dan in concert twice since then. In the early 90s Becker and Fagen put together a crack band and toured for the first time since the 1970s. My wife and I saw them at an outdoor place in Maryland. You can’t buy the thrill I got as I walked through the picnic grove outside the venue and heard the band doing a sound check of Aja’s  “Home at Last.” Lacking connections and the willingness to pay scalper’s prices, we ended way up on the lawn, but it was still one of the best concerts experiences of my life, especially when the sky above the stage lit up with electricity as the band played “Chain Lightning.” It seems that even God—as smart, literate and sophisticated as such an Omnipotent Being must be—is a Steely Dan fan.

I saw them one more time at the same place, on my birthday, no less, on the tour to promote Two Against Nature. It was Steely Dan’s first new studio album in 20 years—20 years!—and in the post-release euphoria I briefly revisited my addiction. A cold-eyed appraisal would have told me the album didn’t rank with their best stuff, but how could I be cold-eyed when I was getting my first Dan fix after two decades?

The concert was terrific. Becker and Fagen reached into the back catalog to play material from all their albums, the music with which I had fallen in love back in the era of vinyl and eight-tracks. When the band played “Hey 19” and Fagen sang, “She thinks I’m crazy/but I’m just growing old,” I sang along. For the first time in my life I really appreciated that line. Along with Becker and Fagen, I was growing old—although I was still struggling with the smart, literate, and sophisticated stuff.