October 1, 2015


Phil Woods: Songs for Sisyphus

Video (from a live concert): 

I don't even know where to start writing a post about Phil Woods.  I've been listening to him for almost as long as I've been listening to jazz; he was one of my favorite sax players when I was in high school in the late 70's and remains on the short list of my all-time guys.   The first time I snuck (under age) into a club to hear live jazz it was to hear Phil.  And the second time.  And the third. (Houston Person would have been the fourth, but I finally turned 18.)

Born in 1931, Woods came along on the alto sax in the early 50's as Charlie Parker was revolutionizing that instrument and all of jazz.  As a young man, Woods was certainly a hard-core bebopper, and that led to him being dubbed "the new Bird" and dismissed by some as a Parker imitator.  (The fact that he was, for a time, married to Parker's widow, probably didn't help quell the comparisons.)  Woods's influences, however, also reached back to the pre-Bird giants of the alto, Johnny Hodges and Benny Carter.

Although Woods is a thoroughly unique jazz voice, as I've learned more about the music I've come recognize individual traits in his playing that remind me of so many other jazz greats: Louis Armstrong's joy and sheer love of the music, Coleman Hawkins's swagger, Dizzy Gillespie's quicksilver technique, Johnny Hodges's passion when playing a ballad, Sonny Rollins's penchant for plucking obscure tunes from the Great American Songbook, Dexter Gordon's affinity for the well-placed musical quotation, and Benny Carter's arranger's sensibility and self-control (like Carter, Woods rarely takes more than two or three choruses for his solos).  And here's one more thing about Woods...other than Louis Armstrong and Toots Thielmans, he is likely to be the only musician prominently mentioned in these posts that you've all heard as he's the sax player on the Billy Joel hit "Just the Way You Are."

Songs for Sisyphus, recorded in 1977, is a terrific introduction to Phil's playing and composing (he wrote the title track and the quirky, Thelonious-inspired "Monking Business").  He also generously provides solo showcases for his sidemen, guitarist Harry Leahy on Django Reinhart's lovely and haunting "Nuages" and pianist Mike Melillo with a Gershwin-esque take on Irving Berlin's "When My Dreams Come True" (a tune that probably hadn't been recorded since it was the theme song for the Marx Brothers' first film, The Cocoanuts, in 1929).  Three numbers in particular capture Woods at his best.  Phil brings intense passion to the Harold Arlen-Yip Harburg ballad "Last Night When We Were Young," moving into double time on the bridge and building into an ecstatic frenzy before relaxing back into the last eight bars of the tune and ending with a satisfied sigh.  "Change Partners" is another Berlin song, this one written for Fred Astaire, and Phil deftly dances his way through the melody before launching into a single chorus solo that is a fiery and hard-swinging race over the changes, enlivened with shouts, growls, smears, one-note rides and even a song quote ("Chattanooga Choo Choo"?).  After Melillo solos, the band returns for a counterpoint episode that has all of the instruments playing independent lines leading up to a final statement of the tune.  Finally, the album ends with a reminder of Woods's bebop roots as he leads the band on a romp through the Gillespie-Parker classic "Shaw Nuff."

Post script: I hadn't planned on writing about Woods until I could better organize my thoughts...in fact, I had been working on a review of an Art Blakey album that OJ dug up at the thrift store a couple of weeks ago.  But early last week I heard on the radio that Phil would be performing last Friday night as part of a local jazz festival.  Well, I couldn't pass that up.  Phil is 83 and suffering from emphysema.  His wife wheels an oxygen tank on stage with him, and he hooks up to it before lifting his horn.  He plays seated, his solos were even shorter than I remember 30+ years ago (when I always left his shows wishing he had played more), and he laid out on 2 of the 6 songs during the 1-hour set.  But when he played, oh my, he still SOUNDED like Phil Woods.  So, on the drive home I decided that my next post had to be about Phil.

In the lyric to his tune, "My Man Phil," Benny Carter summed it up pretty well:
Adolphe Sax, before he made that horn,
Must have known someday a Phil Woods would be born.
Jack or John, Bob or Bill,
Let them say what they will.
But goodness knows nobody blows like,
My man, Phil.


Phil Woods obituary (
John Fordham,
 30 September 2015, The Guardian)

Posted by at October 1, 2015 6:43 AM

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