Phil Woods: A Life in E-Flat

Jack Bowers By

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The documentary is amplified by more than twenty minutes of 'additional interviews' in which Woods reminisces about Bird, Diz, the Birdland All-Stars, his 'on the road' education.
Phil Woods
A Life in E-Flat
Jazzed Media

Most Jazz musicians, and especially those who've been around for a number of years, have interesting stories to tell, about themselves and some of the characters they've known and worked with. Of course, some tell them better than others, which often bears no relationship to how well they play their axe. Phil Woods is not only a great musician (he says so himself) but a great story-teller as well, which makes this DVD, A Life in E-Flat, not only enlightening but highly entertaining throughout.

At its core is an hour-long documentary filmed at the Red Rock Studio in Pocono Mountains, PA, where Woods and his "little big band" are recording the album This Is How I Feel About Quincy, a tribute to his long-time friend and former band mate Quincy Jones. Phil's commentary about his life in music (he's been playing the alto sax for sixty of his seventy-two years) is interspersed with behind-the-scenes footage of rehearsals and takes as Woods and his companions work out the kinks and show the viewer how music is transformed from notes on a page to a sweeping panorama of sound designed to elicit a heartfelt response from the listener (this one was certainly impressed).

Woods starts at the beginning, relating how a keen interest in his uncle Norman's alto sax (he wanted to melt it down to make toy soldiers) was misinterpreted, and the horn was "willed" to him when his uncle died. Phil, then age twelve, bowed to his mother's wishes and agreed to take lessons (well, at least one). He went to the yellow pages, found a name, made a phone call, and it was a call, he says, that "changed my life." The man he phoned was Harvey LaRose, a teacher who quickly recognized Phil's inborn talent and instilled in him a love for music and, eventually, Jazz. Even though LaRose wasn't a Jazz enthusiast, he appreciated Phil's budding interest and introduced him through phonograph records to Benny Carter, Johnny Hodges and others. The rest is history. "I was a natural," Woods concedes. "I was put here to play the saxophone."

Besides heaping praise on his first teacher ("I don't know what would have happened if I'd phoned somebody else"), Woods has nice things to say about several of his fellow musicians including Quincy, Dizzy Gillespie, Art Blakey and especially Charlie Parker, one of his idols and a man who he says was extremely kind and gracious to young musicians, even sharing his cherry pie with Phil and a friend when they were taken backstage to meet him before a performance. There are a number of "Bird" stories, the best of which is "The Nut Club," wherein Woods begins by recounting a gig on which he was so tired of playing the same tunes night after night that nothing seemed right — not his reed, not his mouthpiece, not even the strap that held the alto around his neck. When he heard that "Bird's across the street jamming at Arthur's Cafe," he hurried across 7th Avenue to see the great man in person. "Bird was playing a [borrowed] baritone sax," Woods says, "and I could tell he was having trouble, so I said, 'Mr. Parker, perhaps you'd like to use my alto.'" When Bird said that sounded like a good idea, Woods dashed to the club where he was playing, grabbed his horn and hurried back to Arthur's. "I give Bird the horn," Woods says, "and he plays a few bars of Long Ago and Far Away. Suddenly, there doesn't seem to be anything wrong with my horn. The mouthpiece, the reed — even the strap sounds good! Then Bird hands me the horn and says, 'Now you play.' So I play a couple of choruses, and Bird looks at me and says, 'That sounds really good, son.' Be still, my heart. I levitated across 7th avenue! My feet did not touch the ground. I stopped looking for the magic reed, the magic mouthpiece, the magic horn — instead, I started to practice! And now when some young cat comes to me and says how he can't play because he's in awe of some musician, I tell him I don't want to hear it — I had to play for God one night!"

Whenever Woods pauses, the spotlight returns to the studio where he and the band — some of whose members are trumpeter Brian Lynch, pianist Bill Charlap and Phil's rhythm section of thirty years, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin — are working on songs for the album including "Q's Delight," "For Lena and Lennie" and "Quintessence." Woods breaks away from time to time to discuss other aspects of his career — his first band, his years abroad with the European Rhythm Machine, and his "famous" solo on Billy Joel's mega-hit, "Just the Way You Are." "We did that one evening in a studio," Woods recalls. "Just Phil Ramone and me. I think he had the changes written on the back of a matchbook cover. Two takes; we were in and out in about half an hour. And suddenly I'm known all over the world. I'm in a hotel and this young musician, maybe eighteen or nineteen years old, says to me, 'Are you the guy on the Billy Joel record?' When I tell him yes, I am, he says, 'Have you done anything on your own?'" Woods says he's not ashamed or embarrassed to have played with Joel and a number of other pop and rock musicians. "It's not selling out," he says. "I'm a professional musician. And if I could have changed the course of American music I'd have done it years ago."

The documentary is amplified by more than twenty minutes of "additional interviews" in which Woods reminisces about Bird, Diz, the Birdland All-Stars, his "on the road" education (first bus tour), his alto "brother" Gene Quill, falling in love with his beloved Jill, recording with Michel Legrand and winning a Grammy for the album Images, and other topics. There's also a twenty-six page printable Phil Woods discography. It's a colorful and often fascinating journey, one that is well worth the ride, as is its companion CD on Jazzed Media, This Is How I Feel About Quincy. My advice? Get 'em both.

Documentary 64:24
Additional Interviews 22:17

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