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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.



July 2018
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