Rifftides reader John Birchard, a Voice of America newscaster, has been attending the Jazz Heritage series of concerts in Washington, DC, and sharing his impressions with us. Here is his latest report. The Rifftides staff has added links to Woods’ recorded performances of some of the pieces John mentions.
Once upon a time, Phil Woods was the hottest alto player on the planet.
Bird was dead. Benny Carter had disappeared into the Hollywood studios. Cannonball Adderley was biding his time with Miles. Johnny Hodges was pretty much coasting in the safety of the Duke Ellington sax section and Paul Desmond was relaxing elegantly in the crook of Brubeck’s piano.
Phil, meantime, was rocketing into orbit from his spot in the Dizzy Gillespie band. It was Phil and Quill. It was Phil featured with Quincy’s band in Europe… Phil scorching on Oliver Nelson’s “More Blues and the Abstract Truth”… Phil the bomb throwing malcontent on Benny Goodman’s Soviet tour… Phil on fire with the European Rhythm Machine… Phil dignifying Billy Joel’s “The Way You Are” (and winning a Grammy) with one of his epigrammatic solos… Phil still smokin’ with his Delaware Water Gap bands.
Philip Wells Woods turned 75 this past week (Nov 2). The ol’ be-bopper has put in a lot of hard miles. He has, as they say in the NFL, lost a step. Emphysema will do that. Rather than routinely exceeding expectations, he now merely meets them…which, when you get to his level, ain’t bad.
The U-S Air Force jazz band, the Airmen of Note, closed out their Jazz Heritage series for 2006 the day after Phil Woods’ birthday by featuring him in concert at Lisner Auditorium on the campus of George Washington University in Washington, DC.
The band set the tone for the evening with a roaring tribute to the late Maynard Ferguson – Don Sebesky’s arrangement of “Take the A Train”, featuring some blistering work from the trumpet section. Vocalist Paige Wroble was up second and swung hard with an oldie, “You Can Have It”, which included a strong tenor sax solo from Tedd Baker.
Then it was time for Woods to hit – and his portion of the evening began with his original “target=”_blank”All Bird’s Children…” showcasing his alto, some nice piano from Steven Erickson and tasty 8’s and 4’s from drummer David McDonald.
Another Woods’ original, dedicated to the memory of Bill Evans, dropped the tempo to ballad pace. “Good-bye, Mister Evans” is a lovely tribute and, mixed blessing that it was, showed both Phil’s wonderful way with a melody and his reduced lung capacity. His phrases are shorter now, less often tossed out with the matchless confidence of his younger days. Not bad, mind you, but for the long-time listener, a melancholy reminder that even the greatest can’t beat the ravages of age. As Phil put it, “Growing old is not for sissies.”
And yet… Woods and the rhythm section trotted through the be-bop national anthem, “How High the Moon” with Phil slipping in some fire, some humor and a cliche or two from his own repertoire. Geoff Reecer was heard to advantage in a guitar solo.
A change of pace found the altoist joined by the sax section only for the Quincy Jones ballad, “The Quintessence“, which Woods claimed he played “four times a night back in the 50s and 60s” as a member of the Jones band. In this case, familiarity bred not contempt, but a lyrical solo and some choice ensemble passages.
A bright Woods original showed off Phil’s composer/arranger skills along with his still-virile alto, plus the Airmen’s ability to zip through a complex chart with equanimity. The largest crowd of the season gave the Grammy winner and the band a standing O and were rewarded with a stunning performance of “High Alto-tude”, featuring Phil and two altos from the band, lead man Lucas Munce and Andy Axelrod. The chart calls for the ability to negotiate breakneck-speed twists and turns in a three-man ensemble and to solo in what amounts to an old-fashioned cutting contest. Woods brought his “A” game to this one, and Munce and Axelrod were up to the challenge, with no one backing away. When it was over, the crowd was yelling, whistling and stomping, and the other band members were grinning and applauding.
So – the Lion in Winter may have to take a couple of hits on his inhaler to get through a performance these days, but he can still jerk an audience to its feet from time to time. And it ain’t nostalgia that does that, pal. That’s the native talent that prompted Dizzy Gillespie to hire the boyish phenom fifty years ago. Long may he wave.
Your Washington correspondent,
brian plunkett says
I am a long time Phil Woods fand and friend and I think Mr. Birchard wrote a very fine narrative on Phil Woods.
Jacob Frie says
I have been a fan of Mr. Woods since hearing him with Rob McConnell, although I was familiar with “Just the Way You Are”, I never new Mr. Woods played that solo. I only wish I had heard Mr. Woods earlier in my life, he would have had more influence on my playing.