Phil Woods: Out of the Woods

by Bill King
February 5, 2015

Saxophonist Phil Woods now 83 years old has had a long and varied career.  His early studies at Juilliard led to playing with Jimmy Raney, Charlie Barnet, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Benny Goodman and a host of others, along with leading his own bands.  In 2007, Phil received a "Jazz Master" award from the National Endowment of the Arts. Woods' recordings have been nominated for seven Grammy Awards and have won four.

1975 Images: "Best Large Jazz Ensemble Performance".
1977 Live from the Show Boat: "Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Individual or Group".
1982 More Live: "Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Individual or Group".
1983 At the Vanguard: "Best Instrumental Jazz Performance, Individual or Group".

I had a great conversation with Phil about his music and history behind it the summer of 1991.

BK:  The way you play alto saxophone summarizes the history of the instrument. With many of the notable players long gone, do you find yourself being an influence on the up and coming group of younger players?
Phil:  I like to think that I’ve been able to advance the alto tradition. I always remind them to listen to everybody.  Make sure you listen to Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges, Eric Dolphy and all the others.  I guess I’m a conduit in that sense.  I’ve been doing it forty years. I should stand for something.

BK:  What do you think about the signing of players in their late teens by the major labels?  Will this cause them difficulties in the future or is this an advantage for them?
Phil:  I have mixed feelings.  I feel great about it for the kids who are getting gigs and stuff, but I always urge caution.  The music is great, but the business sucks.  Somebody said to me, “Isn’t it wonderful that jazz is making a comeback?  Look at all the young cats being signed by major labels” but all too often it’s a case of exploitation.  They can’t make any money off us old cats in the long haul; we’re on the back nine as it were.  So it behooves them to sign up some new cannon fodder for the future.

I don’t believe it’s a genuine support for the music.  I wish I could say it was because they genuinely love the music so much.  I think it’s purely an investment.  Do you know what I mean?  As an investment that’s great, that’s all we’re asking.  Somebody invest in it, then, let the music speak.  If the music is strong enough, it will survive all this stuff. That is all that really counts.

BK:  Do you believe the kids are getting advances up front for signing or just the opportunity to record?
Phil:  All too often, when a big company claims to be giving you a lot of money or supplying you with a limo and nice hotel, you don’t realize that it’s your money being spent.  You’re being charged for all of this.  I don’t want to just generally indict everybody, but almost everybody.

BK:  After graduating from high school you spent a summer at the Manhattan School of Music, and then four years at the Juilliard Conservatory.  Do you use a lot of what you learned from those programs today?
Phil:  Of course, it made me a musician.  Those were the important formative years, young adulthood and all that.  Living in the city philosophically tempered me; studying Mozart and Brahms, seeing John Cage lecture, hearing early Charles Ives music, going to the composers’ forum, and at night hearing Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie, Howard McGhee and “Bags”, or whoever.  I had the best of both possible worlds.  It was a very exciting period; we’re talking 1948 to 1952.  With the great education I received, I can say a classical music education serves a jazz musician very well.  If you can understand Bach, you can understand “Bird” a lot easier.

BK:  I’ve spoken with a lot of players who claim studying with a teacher hasn’t been important to them.  Others say it’s the first year and the rest you can learn by ear.  Do you see this to be a valid approach for some people?
Phil:  Studying with a teacher makes you prepare.  Evan a bad teacher can serve you well because every week you’ve got to come up with something.  You start to learn the discipline which you couldn’t acquire without a teacher.  A good teacher will have you preparing the proper things each week, a bad one will keep you practicing.  Most people need that motivation.  I never needed it, I enjoyed practicing and playing.

BK:  Did you transcribe the solos of Charlie Parker, Johnny Hodges or Benny Carter to better understand the notes and phrases they were playing?
Phil:  Not as much as I’ve been accused.  I used to write out all of the heads so we could play the tunes in our little bebop band.  I copied a few when I was a student.  My first teacher, Harvey Larose gave me a copy of some Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges solos.  The “Bird” stuff, I had to take off record.  I think I took off Parkers’ Mood, Embraceable You, Ko-Ko, perhaps a few other blues things, but that’s about it.  Once you do a few by yourself you get a pretty good glimpse of what’s going on.  You can buy the Omni books with all the solos written out, but it’s good to do a few yourself.  I’d recommend that to all students.

BK:  You were one of the founding members of Quincy Jones’ big band which Dizzy Gillespie took to the Middle East, sponsored by the state department.  What was the reception like?
Phil:  That was part of a Broadway show called ‘Free and Easy’ which folded after four or five months in Europe.  The band stayed there for about a year and Quincy booked it himself.  People don’t know how hot that band was.  We had Lenny Johnson on lead trumpet, Benny Bailey, Shahib Shahab, Buddy Catlett, Joe Harris, Jimmy Cleveland, Bud Johnson, Porter Gilbert, Oakey Pearson and others.  We played in Sweden.  The people were still into dancing.  We did a tour of Yugoslavia which was pretty weird.  We got stranded in Spain for a while, but made ends meet.

BK:  You moved to Paris and formed the European Rhythm Machine which lasted from 1968-72.  Was this a musically productive period for you?
Phil:  I’ll have to let the historians handle that.  There seems to be a bit of interest from young people who didn’t have an opportunity to hear the European Rhythm Machine.  There are some reissues coming out, and we’re also talking about doing a European tour next year.  I’ve spoken with all the players and we’re thinking about a European tour with a stop in Japan.  I don’t foresee playing the U.S.

BK:  How was the scene when you returned to the States?
Phil:  It’s been pretty good since then.  The foreign tours were all right, but since I’ve been back in New York, everything has worked out fine.

BK:  Did you find it difficult getting support from the major labels when you returned?
Phil:  I’ve never had support from the majors.  For a minute RCA was doing some decent work, but that was through an independent production company.  We’re with Concord now and they do a good job for us, but I don’t consider them a major label.  I consider them probably the largest independent.  They are the best jazz label going.  I’m really fond of the Chesky brothers.  We have a little big band recording called ‘Real Life’ coming out on their label.

BK:  When Tom Harrell joined the group in 1982, was he the addition that allowed your music to expand and grow?
Phil:  Yes, absolutely.  He’s a great player and improviser.

BK:  Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin have been with you 17 years.  Hal Galper was with you nine years, and Harrell eight.  How difficult is it adjusting to change since the departure of Galper and Harrell?
Phil:  Not that much of a problem.  I pick players very carefully.  Whoever it is, they have to fit.  When Tom Harrell left I didn’t look for another trumpet player, I looked for another musician of his caliber.  I don’t care if he plays a tomato can, as long as he fits in.  I hired Hal Crook because he fits into that category; he’s a great writer, arranger and trombone player.  Pianist Jim McNeely is just superb.  They’re bringing in a lot of new music, taking us in some different directions.  We’ve got three good arrangers, and I consider myself one of them in the band.  There’s plenty of new material coming and I’m excited about that.

BK:  Does the band get much time to rehearse the material or is it presented on the bandstand and played by sight?
Phil:  We take the time for sure.  When we have new stuff you bet we do.  We still do that, but still people will get their parts a week before and have time to prepare.  I review the material and pick out the selections.  I’m the final arbitrator.  Everybody gets a copy of their part, then, in the third set, on a quiet night, we might read it on the stands.  My band all read very well.  We could probably sight read it better than most bands after rehearsing for a week.  Later we talk about it, but first you’ve got to see how it plays in Peoria, as they say.

BK:  How do you like to record?  Are you usually a first or second take player?
Phil:  Oh yeah, absolutely, if you don’t get it on the first or second take, you lose something.  I don’t spend time perfecting the ensemble.  If there’s a raggedy part of an ensemble and the solos are there, I forget it.  I would rather have the reality of a good honest mistake than I would the perfection.  There are a lot of perfect bands with little content.  I think the challenge of getting it all down on the first take is where you have the most concentrated energy.  The second take gets a little diffused, but not that much.  There’s a feeling when you don’t get it in the first couple of takes, and I can sense that.  You begin to play it too safe.

BK:  Do the players bring a steady stream of material to the rehearsals?
Phil:  I’ve got more material than I can handle.  There’s always new music coming in.

BK:  Your 1988 recording ‘Heaven’ was addressed by jazz critics as being the top jazz album of the year in Canada.  Do you count this as one of your personal favorites?
Phil:  I like it very much.  I always recommend it to people.  I think it shows stylistically what that group was all about.  We’re very happy with Concord.  We did a lot of one shot deals and never had any consistency.  People could never find our records.  At least with Concord, you can find our recordings.

We have a good production staff that includes a great engineer, Jim Anderson.  I think the engineer is the sixth man of the quintet.  We approach our recording sessions like we were playing another set.  We’ve been doing it for so long; we produce our own finished product.  Bill Goodwin usually produces along with my wife Jill, as associate producer, so we don’t get bogged down with heavy 90 page contracts.  We just deliver finished product.

Phil Woods– it doesn’t get much better than that.