May 24, 2024

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Phil Woods made no secret of his debt to Parker and in studying him obsessively: Video

02.11. – Happy Birthday !!! The mid-1950s saw not only the first significant strides in the career of the American saxophonist Phil Woods, who has died aged 83, but also the sudden departure of Charlie Parker, bowing unceremoniously out of his chaotically brilliant life in 1955 at only 34. The young Woods played Parker’s instrument, the alto saxophone; he had Parker’s dazzling fluency and speed; and he had the master’s penetrating, blues-steeped tone.

Woods made no secret of his debt to Parker and in studying him obsessively he was no different from thousands of genuflecting young saxists all over the world at the time. But because he was better at it than most, he attracted more attention, and more misrepresentation. Even jazz aficionados tended to consign Woods to the shadow of the artist treated as bebop’s messiah, and as a result his independence and creativity were overlooked for long periods of a very significant jazz career.

Born in Springfield, Massachusetts, Woods began playing the saxophone at the age of 12, and was at first an admirer of the swing altoists Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges. He had a few private lessons in his mid-teens with the pianist Lennie Tristano, the architect of a new jazz style that presented a more measured alternative to bebop’s full-on intensity, and subsequently came to be labelled the Cool School. But Woods was too visceral a performer to turn down the temperature on his sound, and he remained closer to the direct and explicitly communicative swing of a rootsier kind of jazz.

He studied music formally, first at the Manhattan School of Music, New York, from 1948, then at the Juilliard School, where he majored in clarinet, graduating in 1952 – an education that made him a popular sideman for his sight-reading skills. He already played in the millionaire Charlie Barnet’s vivacious orchestra, but by the mid-50s he was working alongside the trumpeter Kenny Dorham in the quintet led by the bop pianist George Wallington. Woods then began working with Dizzy Gillespie, whose globetrotting career as a jazz ambassador for America was beginning to accelerate – the assignment took Woods to South America and the near east.

But Woods preferred the two-sax front line adopted by Gene Ammons, Sonny Stitt and others to the classic 40s sax/trumpet bop ensemble, although his debut album as a leader, Pot Pie (1954), did pair him with the bright-toned trumpeter Jon Eardley. From 1957 on, however, Woods often appeared with a fine fellow altoist, Gene Quill – in that year recording with Quill, Sahib Shihab and Hal Stein on the vigorous jam-session album Four Altos. Quill, predominantly a big-band player, was a fine foil for the agile Woods, with a darker, but more considered, Cool School sound to mark him out.

Even if Woods had resigned himself to belonging in Parker’s wake in the minds of many listeners, he was already developing a powerful identity of his own. A more accurate comparison in this period might have been with Julian “Cannonball” Adderley, the alto saxophonist who partnered John Coltrane on the classic Miles Davis Kind of Blue album, and whose pungent gospel and soul-flavoured bebop was gaining in popularity.

Like Adderley, Woods favoured narrower, more chromatically defined intervals than Parker and played more extended, seamlessly connected figures. He also liked Thelonious Monk-style revisits to the same phrases, often phasing them in changing relationships to the beat.

Until the end of the 50s, Woods continued to appear with Quill in the band Phil and Quill, on occasion with two of Blue Note Records’ up-and-coming stars, Herbie Hancock and Ron Carter, in the rhythm section. Between 1959 and 1967 Woods also worked with the drummer Buddy Rich and the celebrity bandleaders Quincy Jones, Benny Goodman and Clark Terry, and briefly led a quartet in New York featuring the talented and stylistically flexible pianist and composer Hal Galper – who was to become a regular Woods associate from the 80s onwards.

Woods also began an extended period of studio work for TV, film and the advertising business, interspersed with teaching in summer schools, until his departure for Paris in March 1968 with Chan Richardson, whom he had married in 1957. She had been Parker’s partner from 1948 to 1954.

The move to Europe was the stimulus Woods needed to return to the cutting-edge of the improvised small-band jazz for which he was so formidably equipped. With the gifted Swiss pianist/composer George Gruntz, he formed the first edition of his European Rhythm Machine, with the great French rhythm pair of Henri Texier on bass and Daniel Humair on drums – the British pianist Gordon Beck came in to replace Gruntz in 1969. European radio stations frequently offered tempting composers’ commissions, and Woods began to write busily, on scores for Danish and Belgian radio and a ballet for French television.

The European Rhythm Machine wound up in 1972, and after a failed flirtation with an avant-garde electronics ensemble in Los Angeles, Woods moved to Pennsylvania, and founded perhaps his most artistically successful band in 1973 – a quartet including the pianist Mike Melillo that allowed Woods to open up as a bop alto improviser more fully and freely than he ever had before. In a series of fine recordings made throughout the 70s, Woods confirmed just how independent an artist he was by this point, notably on the Grammy winners Images (1975), with Michel Legrand, and Just the Way You Are (1977), with the singer Billy Joel, as well as on the fine live date Quartet Volume One (1979).

Hal Galper took over from Melillo on piano in 1980, followed by Jim McNeely and Bill Charlap, but the bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin remained Woods regulars through the 1990s, the playing of both maintaining a seething energy even after years of keeping the same company. A trumpeter and flugelhornist of spare and fastidious lyricism, Tom Harrell, then joined Woods’ circle in the mid-80s. His delicacy (often using the mute) made a telling contrast to the leader’s fast, churning lines, and the textures were made more absorbing still by the renewal of Woods’s long-suspended relationship with the clarinet.

A series of brilliant albums for the Concord label, including Bop Stew (1987), Bouquet (1989) and Flash (1992), confirmed Woods’s elevation to the front rank of the world’s jazz soloists, a position he had deserved long previously. The trombonist Hal Crook and trumpeter Brian Lynch took Harrell’s place after 1989. Always a perfectionist, Woods often insisted on unplugged, all-acoustic performances even in jazz premises apparently unsuited to such low-key methods, but his commitment and musicality usually won over the most unruly of audiences.

Woods also took his role as a teacher very seriously, helping to found an annual arts festival in Delaware, and regularly taking masterclasses and musician-in-residence roles with student jazz bands around the world, including the National Youth Jazz Orchestra in Britain, and the Catania City Brass Orkestra in Italy. Woods would frequently take the featured-soloist role in these enterprises, performing as if there were nothing in the world he would rather be doing.

He developed a productive musical relationship with the Italian pianist Enrico Pieranunzi in the 90s, and Woods regularly documented his work both in the US and in Europe throughout the decade. High points were The Complete Concert (1996), live from the Wigmore Hall – a performance that caught Woods in more keening and delicate mood, notably on the Bill Evans dedication Goodbye Mr Evans; and Celebration! (1997), an American big band album in which Woods sweeps through a repertoire to which he contributed most of the arrangements with all the composed fire of his earlier years, and no hint of the chronic emphysema that hampered his work late in his life.

He was fluently creative, making characteristically witty spoken asides, on tributes to Marty Paich and Woody Herman with the Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra in 2004, and became a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and received a Living Legend jazz award from the Kennedy Center in 2007. Carrying his obligatory oxygen tank, Woods was playing in Pittsburgh with members of the city’s symphony orchestra as recently as 4 September, interpreting his own arrangements of the famous Charlie Parker With Strings repertoire.

Woods’s first marriage ended in divorce. He is survived by his second wife, Jill Goodwin, his son, Garth, from his first marriage, three stepdaughters, Kim, Allisen and Tracey, and a grandson. His daughter, Aimee, predeceased him.

Philip Wells Woods, saxophonist, born on 1931; died 29 September 2015.

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