On Aug. 11, 2014, a little more than a year before he exited our world, Phil Woods got together with longtime colleague and fellow alto saxophone virtuoso Greg Abate at Chan’s in Woonsocket, R.I., to cut the tracks that make up this thoroughly entertaining two-disc live album. The emphysema that had dogged Woods for years was growing worse; you can see the oxygen tube running into his nose on the front cover photo, and the reason he doesn’t play on two numbers-a lovely quartet version of “Angel Eyes” and a droll trio take on Kurt Weill’s “Speak Low”-is because he just didn’t have the lung power for a full set. Yet his spirits hardly seem dampened. Between songs, he even jokes to the audience that his illness is “Mother Nature’s way of saying, ‘You’ve been playing too many goddamn notes.'”
The effusiveness of Woods’ soloing on selections like “Steeplechase” and “Cedar’s Blues” indicates that, although he may have heard Mother Nature, he wasn’t really listening. A similar torrent of ideas pours forth from Abate’s horn, and I do mean similar: Not only do the two players sound startlingly alike, but they also love repeating and answering each other’s phrases. Pianist Tim Ray, bassist John Lockwood and drummer Mark Walker provide expert support and shine consistently in their solo spots.
Something pleasant must have happened between discs/sets one and two, because the mood of the album’s second half is lighter than the first. There’s an appealingly boozy imprecision to the quintet’s readings of “I’ll Remember April” and “Moonlight in Vermont,” almost as if we were listening in on a party already underway. And why not celebrate? Phil Woods may be gone, but his big-hearted playing will always be with us.