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Interviews

Meet Phil Woods

By Published: April 12, 2005
There is no need to introduce Phil Woods to a jazz audience, but it should be mentioned that he is now as active as ever, turning out quality CD's and videos, playing concerts with his popping quintet, posting outrageous and hilarious notes on his website, and generally refusing to fade away.

A Life in E flat (new video)

The first album I did for Graham Carter out of Denver was the Mancini Album with Carl Saunders. He wanted to do more albums about composers. I've always wanted to do one of Quincy Jones music. He said, "That's a terrific idea." I said, "I don't want to do it in Denver because the altitude is too tough for me." He said, "We'll do it in your neck of the woods." [Delaware Water Gap, eastern Pennsylvania] I assembled the band and did the writing and got in touch with Quincy. As we got closer to the project Graham said, "What do you think if we do a video?" I said, "That's a terrific idea." It seemed to work out really well in conjunction with the way I feel about Quincy and his music, and it got me a chance to talk about my life. I think we captured it pretty good. Oh, I'd love to have the Marx Brothers, Paul Whiteman, Joe Venuti, Zoot and Al, a lot of people.

Quincy Jones

Quincy is actually very responsible for my even being here. Without Quincy I might still have been a chemist which is what I wanted to be when I was a kid. He discovered me when I was with the Birdland All-stars and hired me for the Dizzy Gillespie band. That kind of launched my career, so I've always been indebted to Quincy. Quincy gets a bad rap because he's successful. It's a peculiar thing in America—if you're a smashing success there's something suspect about you. I was with him a year in Europe, and we did the Free and Easy show. Working with his band I did his very first album, This is How I Feel about Jazz, which is why I called my album This is How I Feel About Quincy.

Piano playing (a backdrop in A Life in E Flat)

I used to play gigs on the piano when I was in New York—I used to play for singers. It helps me understand music, and it's a very vital tool for every musician. That's why when you go to a conservatory you get keyboard harmony. All too often jazz students can't play any piano because the courses don't demand it. I went to Julliard. If you go to Oberlin or Julliard or Eastman or any of the bona fide music schools, New England Conservatory, you have to take a piano exam before you even get into school no matter what instrument you play. I've always worked at the piano. I spend more time playing the piano than I do the saxophone when I'm home. I don't play a song before the public unless I know how to play it at the keyboard. I analyze everything before I take it to the saxophone. It's the best way to understand the composer's and the lyricist's intent. I compose a little at the piano, but mostly I compose sitting in a chair, thinking about it. Some nights I dream about what I'm working on. I do a lot of sketching at the piano, then I take it to the computer for the final orchestration and tweaking. The original impetus comes not from the keyboard. The keyboard will help point the way. The trouble with composing at the piano is your compositions will never be any further than your technique at the piano.

Writing/Bird with Strings

I've written for any size band you can think of: little big bands, four clarinets, four altos, strings, a lot of big band stuff. That's where I came from. My first gig was with Charlie Barnet's big band. I've done three or four saxophone quartets—a sonata, solo pieces. I'm doing the Charlie Parker music from Bird with Strings which I reorchestrated and added woodwinds. I took some of the original tunes, "Just Friends," "I'll Remember April." I tweaked them a bit—I thought they were a bit dated. I'm not going to try to improve on playing better than Charlie Parker, but I think I can orchestrate better than the way it was then. It was kind of an anemic sound. They only had four or five or ten strings. We're using twenty-four. They just had an oboe. I added clarinet and flute, and it puts a little more sparkle on the strings. Last year I did an album [The Thrill Is Gone] with strings, a lot of Cole Porter, Gershwin, a couple of my originals—nothing to do with Charlie Parker. It's based on Bird with Strings as is every string album, although the first string album was by Artie Shaw. We call the concerts I'm doing "Bird with Strings plus more." I've added some of the music from The Thrill Is Gone. I wouldn't call it hard core jazz, but I think people will enjoy it, people that are not really hard core jazz fans. We work with the local symphony orchestras. They bring in their conductors. We appeal to maybe a different segment of the population because of the symphonic nature of the project, and hopefully get them to be true jazz fans. I think we'll get our fair share of jazz fans also.

European dates

I go back over to Europe doing the Bird with Strings in Copenhagen and Zurich and a few other towns. I'm going to Paris and record with Michel Legrand in a movie score. I'm going out with George Robert, a wonderful Swiss saxophonist. We're doing a tour of Europe. I wind up in North Sea with Bird with Strings.

Satchmo Blows up the World by Penny Von Eschen/world music

It talks about Willis Conover, the State Department tours when they sent Dizzy, Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, Benny Goodman. The world loved them. I was part of the first Dizzy Gillespie tour of the Mideast, the one Quincy Jones put together. Our first port of call was Abadan, Iran. That was better than now when we send guys with guns. It's strange how bad times present great music to the world—the second World War and the Cold War. Willis Conover would broadcast to the Iron Curtain countries, and he would broadcast jazz. Jazz became the music of freedom and responsibility. We traveled in South America. In the front row were Jobim and Elis Regina and Joao Gilberto. When we traveled in Argentina there was Astor Piazzolla and Lalo Schifrin. They all learned from Dizzy Gillespie and Louis Armstrong who were the fathers of world music. Jazz fits in very well with other cultures. There are guys in Japan who can blow us all away. It means a lot to the rest of the world, more than it does to Americans.

Autobiography, Life in E Flat

My book is coming out this year. I was an English lit. major. I'm a good writer, poetry, painting, all that sort of stuff. Scarecrow Press as we speak is editing it. It should come out in another six months. I've been working on it 30-40 years. I keep a weekly journal. It's got a lot of good stuff: the early Springfield [Mass.] days with Sal Salvador·we were kids together, the early New York days when I went to Julliard and played with Charlie Parker, living in Brooklyn where I hung out with Herbie Mann, with Benny Goodman in Russia in '62, touring with my quintet. It's my life, the real thing.

Lead Alto

Consistency, be a good player, be in tune, be able to phrase. The guys have to know what you're going to do. It can be boring. It's a lot harder to improvise than it is to be a lead alto player. Gene Quill and I got our starts being lead alto players when the music changed after the second World War. The Bill Pottses of the world, the composers, needed a new style of phrasing and music. Mulligan and John Carisi and Gil Evans. There was no longer a lot of vibrato and all that. The young guys had a new way of playing lead alto. It was more a stylized kind of thing as the music developed. Bebop was the new thing, Claude Thornhill's band.

Records with Thelonious Monk: Town Hall Concert (1959) and Big Band and Quartet in Concert (1963)

I loved working with Monk. That Town Hall concert was a magic night. I wish we had worked more together. Don't leave out Hall Overton who orchestrated the music and rehearsed the band. I knew Hall from when he was teaching at Julliard. I met him as a kid. I performed to the satisfaction of Mr. Monk because I knew what he was about musically or at least I came as close as I could.

Jazz Education

I've done a lot of college dates. I'll be up in Chambersburg tomorrow, and I'm going to the University of Maryland on Sunday. I just came from the University of Texas and DePaul University. I do residences all over the world.

Soon to be released

The Unheard Herd from Jazzed Media: Woody Herman Second Herd songs that you don't hear that much like "Man, Don't Be Ridiculous," and "Boomsie". There is an unreleased Gerry Mulligan chart of "Yardbird Suite." That'll be out any minute. It's a West Coast band, pretty much the same guys as the Marty Paich [Groovin' with Marty] which came out kind of nice. They were both done at the same concert with The Los Angeles Jazz Orchestra. Bouncing with Bud and Phil [quintet with Bud Shank] just came out. Bud wrote a couple of compositions. I wrote one or two. It's got bebop tunes, a lot of Latin, a lovely George Cables fusion piece. Rhythmically it's very interesting. I just did a record with Bill Charlap, Frank, Wess, Terence Blanchard and Slide Hampton. It's all Gershwin. I eventually want to record the Bird with Strings music.

Visit Phil Woods on the web.



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