Phil Woods RIP

October 3, 2015 at 10:34 am (jazz, Jim D, music, RIP, United States)

I’m ashamed to admit that I came late to Phil Woods and have only been listening intently to his superb playing since news of his death, aged 83, came through earlier this week.

He played his final gig on September 4th using an oxygen mask and, before the final number announced that due to emphysema, he was retiring with immediate effect. Due to his extensive work as a session man on pop records, many people who are not particularly into jazz, will have heard his playing without knowing it: he plays the sax solo on Billy Joel’s Just The Way You Are, for instance.

But it is as one of the greatest of post-Parker altoists that he will be properly remembered. Here he is on a live recording from 1976 (‘Live From the Showboat’), in truly magisterial form on ‘Cheek To Cheek’, a difficult song not obviously suited to jazz improvisation – but Woods makes it all sound so easy:

Phil Woods (alto) with Harry Leahey, guitar Mike Melillo, piano Steve Gilmore, drums

H/t: Pete Neighbour, who wrote on facebook, “This is one of ‘THE’ Phil Woods tracks… I remember playing this endlessly when I first got it on vinyl; desperately trying to get somewhere near this masterful performance – and failing dismally I hasten to add. My mind struggling with the harmonic complexities that Phil found in this standard….. desperately trying not to copy…but wanting… so, so wanting to be influenced and to let some of his genius seep through my playing. Today, with everyone seemingly accorded ‘superstar status’ to listen to this brings home the meaning of true musical genius. I know all this sounds ‘gushing’……..but….if it does…..I don’t care!”


  1. Robert R. Calder said,

    93 — I remember a few years ago when I was reviewing CDs some still impressive stuff, and there were these gigs in Glasgow, at the old transport museum, TRAMWAY, where he played wearing a hat, and the very nearly cleanhead friend who came along with me said how considerate, since when he took it off at the end he had a full head of hair.

    The tone was huge and burnished, suggesting something on a Coleman Hawkins scale but not sound (since this man was an alto player, and of course clarinetist (he should have used more clarinet in the recording with Stephane Grappelli!). The sound became less full the more he speeded into rapid fluency, but there was nothing like the sound when he was playing medium tempo or rhapsodic, so very full.
    He was amused to scotch the tale in the press that he had Charlie Parker’s alto, though the line about having Ozzie Nelson’s clarinet rang fewer bells than he imagined. George Shearing’s golf clubs did ring bells in the properly packed audience, in the same list of what he claimed to have.
    There was also the Old Fruitmarket gig, where unlike in later years the sound was properly checked from the start and we had benefit of Phil Woods and Peter King together, with Chan Parker a guest at a front table (as Charles McPherson was interested and I supposed pleased to hear when I mentioned it during his day or two in Glasgow with Ronnie Rae and Brian Kellock and a drummer….. but which of our local drummers I cannot recall.
    But who was the fourth member, beside George Gruntz and Daniel Humair of the Phil Woods European Rhythm machine? With which Mr. Woods did exciting things south and east of here for a number of years. He also made some admirable music with Hal Galper, wonderfully vigorous pianist.

    And there are such records, Further Definitions led by Benny Carter, with Hawkins, Charlie Rouse, the admirable and himself rewarding American pianist Dick Katz (who had an English namesake pianist)

    Benny Waters, stupendous veteran, amusingly enough named Phil Woods on of the musicians he admired, amusingly because Benny (a small Bostonian giant long resident of Paris who blew American colleagues’ minds when they heard him, some after decades and some for the first time — like Jake Hanna) — well Benny described Phil as “a white boy”.

    And may anyone who has the option also still be one into his seventies, which is where Phil was then. Benny was about ninety when he made that comment,
    Phil did irritate people saying that in view of the smallness of demand too many saxophonists were being produced by American music schools, And there is the tale of the night he went with a friend and colleague to hear this new man just after Charlie Parker’s death, when they thought competition had slumped and there might be an extra job somewhere. And since this new man was Cannonball Adderley the two altoists in the audience turned to each other and uttered a monosyllable which has no place in a heartfelt expression of gratitude.

  2. Robert R. Calder said,

    should have been 83 not 93 — in print…
    in life the other way round would have been better..
    when I lived in Germany I just missed being able to attend a concert which received a very favourable review with excellent but mislabelled photos.
    The musicians were referred to as Kenny Woods and Phil Barrow.
    I’m sure he’d have relished the wheelbarrow joke.
    and a mighty impressive clip herewith, well don!

  3. Jim Denham said,

    Thanks for your comments and memories Robert. Like you, I also really enjoyed the Benny Carter ‘Further Impressions’ album, which was in fact my first introduction to Woods’s playing. I’m interested to learn for the first time, that the pianist on that session, Dick Katz, is *not* the Brit player of the same name.

    You ask who was the “fourth member, beside George Gruntz and Daniel Humair of the Phil Woods European Rhythm machine?” I’ve checked Richard Cook’s Jazz Encyclopaedia, which gives the members as the three you’ve named, plus (at various times) Gordon Beck (who replaced Gruntz) and Henri Texler.

  4. Gerry Kelly said,

    Here’s what Denny Dias of Steely Dan had to say about Phil Woods

    “We were so impressed with the performance of Phil Woods on “Doctor Wu” that when it came time to fade out at the end of the song we couldn’t fade Phil. In the first mix, everything fades out except the saxophone!”

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