© - Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
“Phil played as if there were no tomorrow.”
- Chuck Israels, Jazz bassist
For me, the phrase “searing intensity” used in a Jazz context immediately brings to mind alto saxophonist Phil Woods [who played one heckuva of a clarinet, too].
Phil solos burst forth with so many exciting ideas that it was a miracle that he could get them all in.
I am usually so worn out following one of his solos that I often look for a seat to sit down on when they're over, although I'm often already sitting down. And sometimes, while seated, his passionate improvisations made me want to rise to my feet and cheer as a release from the sense of overall exuberance they created in me.
I can think of no other player who consistently left me shaking my head in wonderment after listening to what came out of his horn.
Phil once said of the late baritone saxophonist Pepper Adams that “He was a Bebopper right down to his socks.” “Socks” is an appropriate metaphor for Phil’s playing because it usually “knocked my socks off” with the potency of its pulse and the brilliance of its ideas.
With Phil there was no “Lead, follow or get out of the way.” He just led and everyone else followed, joyous at the opportunity to do so.
It takes courage to always be out there showing the way; leading the way by going first and inspiring others to stand-up, plant their feet and blow. Like Louis Armstrong once said: “Jazz is who you are.” The music is all about honesty and Phil played it with an integrity that either inspired you to reveal your inner soul or convince you that maybe becoming a dry-cleaner was not so bad after all.
Jazz musicians are not often considered heroes or role models. Many of their lifestyle choices - let alone their lifestyle, itself - are deemed to be improper by the general public.
Phil Woods was a Jazz musician and he was a very brave one. On both accounts - because he was a Jazz musician and because he was brave - he was one of my enduring heroes.
With Phil’s passing on September 29, 2015, there are going to be a lot of words written about him, but none will have more sincerity and be filled with more admiration than those that follow by bassist, composer-arranger and educator, Chuck Israels.
Reading it will help you understand what made Phil Woods - “My hero, Phil Woods.”
© - Chuck Israels/Mosaic Records, copyright protected; all rights reserved.
Postscript - Encounters with Phil
“Upon graduating from college in 1959, I took the then obligatory trip to Europe to "find myself." I don't know exactly why I thought I might be there rather than where I was at the time, hanging around Boston and western Massachusetts, but that was the habit of the era, to graduate and go look for yourself in a place that you weren't. It had its advantages. Besides, I had $1,000 saved and that seemed a fortune.
After an uneventful Atlantic crossing on a Holland America Line ship, I was met in Paris by my Italian-American college roommate, who immediately took me to a party at the home of a movie director who was filming Bud Powell and Kenny Clarke playing at the party. I was asked to play with them and a few days later, I had a job with Bud, playing in a Left Bank cave for $10 a night. You could live on that.
Quincy Jones had a band that was preparing to tour Europe that summer. The band was rehearsing in the mezzanine of the Olympia Theatre and I somehow wrangled an invitation to attend a rehearsal. It was a great band with some of Quincy's friends from Seattle, like Buddy Catlett and Patti Bown. Les Spann was the guitarist and played some flute solos. Sahib Shihab was in the saxophone section and Joe Harris played drums. I listened to a number of pieces in which there were solos played by various members of the band. It would be unfair to say that those solos were perfunctory, but later, when Phil Woods stood up from the lead alto chair to play his solo feature, the atmosphere changed. Phil played as if there were no tomorrow.
The contrast was striking and I have always remembered the impression it left. If you practice rehearsing, then when the time comes to perform, you are ready to rehearse. Phil practiced performing.
Years later, sometime around 1980,I was involved in a recording under [trombonist] Hal Crook's leadership. Bill Dobbins and Bill Goodwin played piano and drums and it was one of Goodwin's early efforts at record production. He was already great at that job and had arranged that Phil should be a guest soloist on some of Hal's tunes. Bill Dobbins had the flu and a fever of 103 or so, but that didn't seem to phase him. We recorded a couple of pieces and everything seemed to be going at the high level of intensity one expects at an east coast recording session where someone's limited budget is on the line. No one was wasting any time and the work was proceeding at what we thought was as fast and efficient a pace as we could muster. Then Phil walked in, took out his alto, glanced at Hal's music for the first time, and played better, faster and more intensely than the rest of us who had been warmed up and working for an hour or so.
This intensity and focus is an essential aspect of Phil's artistic personality, but it is also important to recognize the intelligence that accompanies this mania. Phil is aware enough of his own experience and of the world he inhabits to make informed and considered decisions about his artistic life. It is these decisions as well as his great skill and intensity that have shaped his commitment to the pursuit of his musical potential. It is a compliment to his determination that that potential is so often realized.
There will surely be more to come.”
[Thank goodness Chuck was right; another 26 years as of this writing.]
Phil’s performance of Charlie Parker’s Barbados forms the sound track on this retrospective of the art of Thomas Andersen with Hilton Ruiz, piano, Charlie Haden, bass and Marvin “Smitty” Smith, drums.