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Phil Woods: Still Bopping

Jill Goodwin with husband Phil Woods
Phil Woods

Phil Woods is standing on the deck that runs the length of his mountaintop home in the Poconos, surveying his front yard. “Someday, this will all be mine,” he laughs. The idyllic surroundings of a small village like the Delaware Water Gap might appear almost too serene for the intense Woods, who seems to operate at twice the speed of a normal human being. But he clearly loves the bucolic area that he has called home for over 30 years.

“For a village of 500 people, it’s really swingin’,” the 73-year-old says. “There are so many great musicians here-Dave Liebman, Steve Gilmore, Urbie Green, Nelson Hill. One of the world’s oldest jazz clubs, the Deer Head Inn, is right down the street. We have the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection [at East Stroudsburg University] and the COTA Festival, so it’s a pretty vibrant scene.”

The great alto saxophonist is recovering from a bout of pneumonia, but he’s about to resume a hectic schedule of university clinics, recording sessions, dates with his quintet and “Bird With Strings” concerts in Europe. “I’ve never been busier,” Woods says. “I get up in the morning, look in the mirror, brush my tooth, give myself a round of applause and say, ‘Let’s get on with it!'”

Tagged early on as heir apparent to his idol, Charlie Parker, Phil Woods remains an unabashed bebopper. But he always had his own take on the music. “The first solos I tried to play were by Benny Carter,” he says. When the Ellington band came to Woods’ hometown of Springfield, Mass., hearing Johnny Hodges in person was another revelation, and his ballad style still reflects Hodges’ soaring grandeur. Woods liked the “jump” style of the marvelous but overlooked Pete Brown and absorbed the work of Louis Jordan and Earl Bostic. He also listened to tenor players and tosses in an occasional exaggerated vibrato or growl “for Ben [Webster] and Budd [Johnson]-my buddies,” he says.

But Bird made the deepest impression. “‘Koko’ was the most important jazz record I heard,” Woods says. “I was playing with a kid band, Carmen Riboza and His Rhythmaires-my father use to call us Carmen Riboza and his Riveters because we were so awful! I brought the record to a rehearsal, and they really put me down. I walked out in tears in the middle of the rehearsal-my first political statement!”

Woods has always been a man of deep convictions. He moved to Europe in 1968, partly because of the political scene. “It was hard to be an American in 1968,” Woods says. “Chan [Parker, Phil’s wife then and Charlie’s widow] was very active and we both felt we had to make a statement. But it wasn’t only political dissatisfaction. I was getting sucked into the studio thing and wasn’t playing any music.”

Seated in his rustic living room and surrounded by photos of his family and the musicians he loves, Woods is still passionate in his beliefs but would not consider leaving again. “America needs good people here now. We need more protest,” he says. “I used to feel I’ve got to get my children away from the village before the epidemic hits them, but now everybody’s grown up. At 73, I just can’t start over again. And it wouldn’t be fair to Jill.”

Jill is Jill Goodwin, Phil’s wife, a warm and eminently sensible lady and the foundation of his personal happiness and professional success. “None of this would have happened without Jill,” Woods says. “She’s got all the publishing together. She handles all of the logistics, keeps the band together, the books, the money. All I have to do is play.”

The two met in 1970 at Shelly’s Manne Hole in Los Angeles, where Woods was leading his European Rhythm Machine. But it wasn’t until 1974, again in Los Angeles, that they began to hang out. “Jill was coming off a bad marriage, and I was splitting up with Chan. I thought I was in love with this rich Swedish bombshell and was heading back East to rendezvous with her. Jill was also going back, so we agreed to split the cost of gas. When we got to New York, I realized that it wasn’t the bombshell I loved, it was Jill!”

Apart from love, their relationship is based on a mutual understanding: “Jill does all the driving, and I play the saxophone. We’ve never changed that.”

What has changed is that Woods has mellowed over the years. He no longer confronts noisy patrons in a club with, “I can hear you, can you hear me?” or “Are we disturbing you?” The former firebrand can be downright avuncular. For example, at last year’s JVC festival tribute to him in New York, Woods was a most genial host as musicians old and young gathered to pay tribute to him. “I’m still a curmudgeon,” he says. “People say I’m ‘abrasive.’ Well, I am. If you’ve been a jazz musician for 60 years, you’ve got to have a rough suit of armor on just to survive.”

Woods can be brutally honest, as evidenced by his devastating remarks about various colleagues on blindfold tests through the years. Still not one to suffer fools gladly, Woods is willing to revise his opinions. Of Wynton Marsalis and Jazz at Lincoln Center, an erstwhile target, he now says, “I think they’ve done great things for jazz.”

While Woods may have mellowed personally, his music has lost none of its fire. If anything, his playing seems to have reached a new peak. While still able to negotiate the breakneck bebop tempos of his youth, the saxophonist displays even greater depth and emotion, which comes through most clearly on ballads. Woods has an infinite variety of timbres at his disposal, from a “legit” classical sound to a cavernous, tenorlike roar. His solos are informed by his consummate musicianship, a lifetime of experience and his quick wit.

Woods’ recent work is even more remarkable given the health problems he has faced. “It’s pretty goddamn amazing-even to me!” he says. “I was hit by the three great whammies-in addition to my pulmonary problems, I had prostate cancer and had to get a complete set of false teeth.”

Years of smoking brought on emphysema, a condition one would think would be catastrophic for a wind player. Yet the disease hasn’t laid a glove on Woods’ playing. “My bellows are still working fine, so when I’m playing I’m OK,” he says. “But the alveoli that convert the air into oxygen in the bloodstream don’t work. I sleep with oxygen-I have to rent a machine wherever I go. After a night with it, I’m good to go.” Woods also has to avoid any infections: “I don’t just get colds. When I get sick, I get really sick.” Nevertheless, he has no intentions of retiring, stating, “Benny Carter has always been my role model, and he played into his 90s.”

Woods even feels that his physical problems may have made him a better player: “Now I try to find the one note that works instead of those million extraneous notes I used to play. Through necessity, I’m learning to use space, and that’s a wonderful thing.” Woods also feels that switching instruments about four years ago contributed to his rejuvenation as a player. “I always loved the Selmer horn, but with my infirmities it was really kicking my ass. When I tried the new Yamaha, all of a sudden my life got simpler. It responds so well that I don’t have to think about the horn any more. And the guys at Yamaha are always tweaking it for me.”

The altoist’s undiminished excellence is exemplified on a spate of recent recordings-unprecedented even for this prolific artist. In relatively quick succession, his fruitful association with Colorado-based Jazzed Media has yielded three CDs that rank with any in Woods’ 50-year recording career: This Is How I Feel About Quincy (a tribute to his former bandleader Quincy Jones), Groovin’ to Marty Paich (a live set in which Woods is the featured soloist on Paich’s arrangements from the classic 1959 Art Pepper + Eleven album) and Play Henry Mancini (a blistering set with trumpeter Carl Saunders). Jazzed Media has also just released a DVD, Phil Woods: A Life in E Flat, which skillfully interweaves the saxophonist’s life story with a revealing glimpse of his “little big band” at work in the studio. Meanwhile, Philology, the Italian label named for Woods, put out four CDs last year featuring Phil with fellow altoist Lee Konitz. (The label has no less than 27 Woods releases in its catalog.)

And there’s more to come: Woods just recorded with Tom Scott for the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild (which also released the sublime Beyond Brooklyn featuring Woods and Herbie Mann-the flutist’s last recording), with Bud Shank (for Capri) and an Unheard Herd Woody Herman salute for Jazzed Media.

The saxophonist has also made many recent guest appearances, most notably on albums by singers Nancy Wilson and Tony Bennett. “Playing for singers is one of my favorite things,” says Woods. “I did Johnny Mathis’ first things, and Sarah Vaughan, Lena Horne, Dinah Washington. And look what I did for Billy Joel!” he quips, referring to his famous solo on the pop singer’s 1978 hit “Just the Way You Are.”

Woods is a notoriously fast worker in the studio. “I love first takes,” he says. “If you can’t get it on the first or second try, you start doubting yourself. I’m looking for the fire of the solo, and I don’t mind if a seam shows. Perfection doesn’t appeal to me.” As the Jazzed Media DVD demonstrates, Woods also knows how to keep things loose with liberal doses of his quick and often self-deprecating humor. “It’s supposed to be fun,” he says. “If the band is laughing a little bit you’re going to get a better feeling. Jazz is supposed to be joyful.”

While Woods enjoys all his varied musical encounters, he is most comfortable with his own quintet. “It’s like putting on a pair of slippers,” he says. “When I’m with a pickup rhythm section, you have to resort to common-denominator material. With the quintet, we do tunes that nobody knows or plays.”

Woods’ writing for the group is carefully thought out, and he is a master at choosing notes that make the two-horn front line sound much larger. Each edition of the quintet has had its own character reflecting the different personalities of its members. The mainstays are bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin (Woods’ brother-in-law), who have been with the group since its inception in 1974. “I win all the awards but my guys don’t get the attention they deserve,” he says. “Bill and Steve are one of the great rhythm tandems in the world.” Trumpeter Brian Lynch joined the group in 1992 and pianist Bill Charlap in 1995.

Charlap likens playing with Woods to “grabbing onto the caboose of a freight train. You can’t sleep on the job! You’ve got to be able to handle everything from ‘Skyliner’ to Jim McNeely’s charts.” While the arrangements may be complex, Woods gives the members a lot of freedom. “You’re hired to be yourself,” Charlap says. “Phil really trusts the players to bring everything to the table,” and he inspires by example. “At my first rehearsal with the quintet, Phil was playing just as passionately as at a gig. He only has one gear.”

Woods moves upstairs to his study. He sits at his computer surrounded by audio equipment. The walls are filled with more photos: Bird, Phil with Al Cohn and Zoot Sims, with Benny Carter, Gene Quill and many others. He plays a score while following it on the monitor. “My writing is usually done at the piano, but then I enter everything into the computer [using Sibelius]. We’re selling my arrangements through the Web site []. I got a letter from someone in California who said that 20 minutes after they paid for the charts they were playing them at a rehearsal. I think that’s pretty hip!”

Phil’s son, Gar, a professional Web designer, created the site, which contains a wealth of information and a comprehensive discography. Woods himself regularly interacts with fans on the discussion boards. One revealing thread is “Phil’s Solo of the Day,” where Woods aficionados list their favorite solos-they’re up to 150 different ones and counting.

In addition to writing music, Woods is adept at writing prose. For several years, he wrote an insightful and often hilarious column in Saxophone Journal and still contributes regularly to The Note (published by the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection). “It gives me a chance to flay at the world,” Woods says, adding more seriously, “I’ve always loved the English language.” He has also completed his autobiography, which is being readied for publication.

Woods views being a jazz musician as a sacred trust. He also feels an obligation to preserve the memories of his musical fathers and pass on what he has learned from them. “When I go to universities, I always try to tell them the full import of what they’re getting into,” he says. “If you want to be a jazz musician, you have to be a cultured human being. Mr. Carter taught me that, and so did Charlie Parker. Know something about the world, about food, wine, speak a language, go to a play, get some pastels and try to draw a stick figure. Don’t just say you’re ‘into Trane, man.'”

He also advises youngsters not to take themselves too seriously: “When I was about 16, I thought I was hip. I was into Bird, I studied with Tristano, I knew who Stravinsky was. I even took up a pipe. I came home one day and my mother looked at me and said, ‘Well, Philip, did you meet anyone today that you liked better than yourself?’ Bam! Mom was a great leveler!”

As to what he does at a clinic, Woods says, “I play the piano. They get all wrapped up in the technique of the horn, but the answers all lie in the piano. The world is full of great saxophone players-but great musicians? There aren’t that many.” Woods also doesn’t want young musicians to play it safe. “Too many players try to please me,” he says. “Don’t please me, upset me!” Finally, Woods is deeply concerned about the practical side of the proliferation of jazz programs on campus: “I’m all for jazz education, but we’ve got to get some gigs for them.”

Saxophonist Jon Gordon, who studied privately with Woods in the 1980s, describes his experience: “He’d challenge me by just throwing me into something. He’d have me play Bartok violin duets. He can be tough, but he couldn’t have been more supportive. He would say, ‘Man, you’re talented, but do you really want this?'” Gordon also witnessed first-hand Woods’ deep love for his fellow artists, especially his elders: “I had a lesson with him right after Budd Johnson died. He was completely torn up. He loves musicians and what they stand for. It wasn’t a typical lesson that day, but I learned so much.”

Woods heads back downstairs and sits at the piano. He plays some chords and says, “You know, jazz is a noble calling. I love the Grammys and stuff like that, but when somebody comes up to you and says, ‘We used Floresta Canto (RCA, 1975) for our wedding,’ it really hits home-that your music becomes part of their personal lives.”

Woods stops playing, looks up, and after a brief silence says softly, “A lot of people have died for this music. I’m a lucky cat and I count my blessings every day. I still have Jill, my band, my dear friends. I’m working my ass off, making plenty of bread. It’s hard to get angry.” Originally Published