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Phil Woods: Philology

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When pianist Jim McNeely replaced Hal Galper in the Phil Woods Quintet in 1990 it was the current winner—repeating in 1991—of the Downbeat Readers Poll as top jazz small group. But, as McNeely remembers, his first days with the alto saxophonist's band included a benefit concert for the local volunteer fire department in Delaware Water Gap, Penn. (where Woods has lived since 1974), a cancelled jazz club gig and playing at the wedding of Woods' friend.

"Well," Woods told McNeely afterwards, "we've had a freebie, a cancelled gig and a wedding. Welcome to the Number One jazz band."

When Woods brings his Quintet into Dizzy's Club this month the band, a quartet in its earliest incarnations and a quintet, first in 1976-77 and permanently since 1983, will be entering its 36th year with original members Woods, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin. On trumpet will be Brian Lynch, a 17-year veteran of the band and filling the piano spot vacated recently by Bill Charlap after 14 years will be the fifth occupier of that chair, Bill Mays.

"Our three original members will soon pass the Modern Jazz Quartet in terms of jazz band tenure," says Goodwin, who also produces most of the band's recordings. "I've surpassed Connie Kay [MJQ, 34 years] and Sonny Greer [Duke Ellington Orchestra, 23 years] as the longest running drummer in one group."

Woods' own career (he'll turn 78 later this year) predates the formation of the Quartet/Quintet by over two decades. He was an established star by the late '50s and right through the following decade, working with big bands led by Charlie Barnet, Buddy Rich, Dizzy Gillespie, Michel Legrand and Quincy Jones and appearing and touring with the Thelonious Monk Orchestra and Benny Goodman Orchestra, as well as sideman, studio and film soundtrack work and leading his own bands. Music fans beyond jazz have heard his solos on recordings by Steely Dan, Carly Simon and, most famously, Billy Joel's hit, "Just the Way You Are." Among his many honors are numerous readers and critics poll wins as the top alto saxophonist, a Kennedy Center Living Legends in Jazz Award, four Grammys and having a jazz label, Philology (in Italy), named for him.

Early in his career, Encyclopedia of Jazz author Leonard Feather said Woods "has inherited the Charlie Parker style and modified it to his own ends more successfully than almost any other alto man except Julian "Cannonball" Adderley." But Woods is no Bird clone, in fact he has a distinctive and immediately recognizable alto sax sound marked by a sumptuous tone, superb technique and exceptional lyricism.

"What really knocked me out about Phil," recalled McNeely, "was that he could play a line and every note had a different inflection to it and a little different articulation. He never just ran out a string of eighth notes, he always was sculpting the line in certain ways with his melodic sense. He's got wonderful technique but the great thing there too is he doesn't hit you over the head with it; the technique is a means to a greater end, so it's not like you're hearing a guy with a lot of chops, you're hearing a great musician expressing himself fully. And Phil is such a strong player, especially with time, something we could really feel since we usually played acoustically, so it was like a chamber group except very high energy."

Catching up with Woods on the phone from his home at the Gap, he was busy adding arrangements from a trove of Al Cohn charts rescued from a dumpster—he's a member of the board of the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection housed at East Stroudsburg University—to his computer as well as finishing up a commission from the (classical) New Jersey Saxophone Quartet which he is dedicating to his clarinet teacher at Juilliard, Jimmy Abate. And being home doesn't necessarily mean being inactive as a player, as Woods still helms a Pocono area big band that plays local gigs. He is preparing to record solos for a Philology album of his own songs and lyrics by singer Michelle Lombardi that was recorded in Italy. He's also looking forward to the imminent release on Jazzed Media of another project, one 40 years in the making, his The Children's Suite, inspired by the poems of A. A. Milne.

"Yeah," said Woods, "we finally got it recorded by my [8-piece] Little Big Band plus a string quartet, with singers Bob Dorough and Vicki Doney and readings by actor Peter Dennis. A local PBS station also videotaped it a couple of years ago and it should eventually come out on DVD too."

A suggestion that some new young alto saxophonists appearing on the jazz scene are today hailed as "the new Phil Woods," just like he was once hailed as the "new Charlie Parker," prompted this response from Woods:

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