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The Phil Woods Six: Live from the Showboat

John Kelman By

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Phil Woods—Live from the ShowboatThe Phil Woods Six
Live from the Showboat
Sony Music Japan
2015 (1977)

With the sad passing of Phil Woods on September 29, 2015, what better way to honor the career of this alto (and occasionally soprano) saxophone giant with the Rediscovery of a live album that, long out of print—and previously only available on CD in a truncated, single-disc edition that excised some of its most exhilarating moments—has finally seen the light of day in its entirety with a Japanese reissue earlier this year.

Wood's Live from the Showboat was originally released in 1977 by RCA Victor, and was a pretty ballsy move, given that jazz coming out of the Unjted States at the time was generally more electric in nature. The fusion of jazz and rock that occupied much of the early part of the decade—with mega-selling groups like the chops-heavy Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever sharing the wealth with Herbie Hancock's funk-a-licious Head Hunters, the uptown groove of the Brecker Brothers and Miles Davis' jungle-dense sonic explorations—was beginning to make the slow move toward easier on the ears music from artiste like Dave Grusin, Lee Ritenour and Larry Carlton that would ultimately morph into the even more radio-friendly sound of smooth jazz. Ugh.

And so, in the midst of all this, a two-LP live set that met all these changes with an unrelenting acoustic blend of swing, samba and gentle balladry? Only a musician as firmly committed as Phil Woods—who emerged in the bebop era and, while evolving as any great artist should, remained true to his roots throughout his career—would have the vision to stick with what he knew and loved most, while at the same time not ignoring what was going on around him. After all, it was Woods who would appear as the featured soloist on "Dr. Wu," one of the more memorable tunes from the increasingly jazz-informed pop group Steely Dan's Katy Lied (MCA, 1975).

Live from the Showboat includes its fair share of jazz standards, alongside originals from Woods and some of his band mates, like a burning version of Irving Berlin's "Cheek to Cheek," which begins with an a cappella intro from Woods that gradually becomes a duo with Mike Melillo—the pianist making his second recorded appearance here with Woods, but who would remain a member of the saxophonist's various-sized groups through to the early '80s. And the album opens with an alto/guitar duet with Harry Leahey that suggests a balladic look at Harold Arlen and Truman Capote's "A Sleepin' Bee" but, once Melillo, bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Steve Gilmore enter—two more musicians who would remain players of choice for Woods almost into the new millennium—it shape-shifts into an ambling swinger that provides plenty of solo space for both the saxophonist and pianist.

Still, Woods wasn't averse to mining contemporary song for his repertoire, and one of the understated highlights of Live from the Showboat is a relatively brief look at "Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)," one of the most memorable ballads from Stevie Wonder's breakout solo album as an adult, Music of My Mind (Tamla/Motown, 1972). Beyond Woods' wonderfully spare solo, it's Leahey's lyrical turn that defines the track and makes it a highlight of the 114-minute set.

Leahey, who passed away too young in 1990 at the age of 54, may never have achieved the acclaim he deserved, but in a short career that included everyone from Woods, Gerry Mulligan, Al Cohn, Warren Vache and Maynard Ferguson on his résumé, the guitarist—who as an educator, included future names like Vic Juris, Jon Herington and Chuck Loeb amongst his massive list of students—was well-known amongst musicians, garnering accolades like " He was the top of the heap. He was the best guitarist that I had ever played with and I played with every [one]," from his employer on Live from the Showboat.

But it's "Brazilian Affair" that is the album"s centerpiece, a nearly 22-minute, episodic excursion into a variety of Brazilian-informed themes and rhythms that gives everyone the opportunity to solo at length, including percussionist Alyrio Lima, who delivers an in tandem solo with Goodwin that lifts the already high-reaching track into the stratosphere at its conclusion.

With the curious but finally righted wrong of this CD reissue of Live from the Showboat in its unedited entirety, it's the chance to finally hear an album that stands amongst the best of Phil Woods' career...and is both a terrific introduction for the uninitiated and an essential addition for those who have followed the saxophonist's lengthy career. So, as we mourn the loss of Woods, age 83, there's also the opportunity to get acquainted (or reacquainted) with Live from the Showboat—one of the best albums too many have never heard from a saxophonist who may be gone, but who will live on in the nearly 50-strong discography as a leader and significantly larger number of recordings on which he appeared as a guest. A terrific live record that sounds positively sizzling on my Tetra 333s...it's a real treat to finally own it once again...at an appropriate but unfortunate time for Rediscovery.

RIP, Phil...we loved ya!

So, what are your thoughts? Do you know this record, and if so, how do you feel about it?

Personnel: Phil Woods: alto and saxophones; Mike Melillo: piano; Harry Leahey: guitar; Steve Gilmore: bass; Bill Goodwin: drums; Alyrio Lima: percussion.

Tracks: CD1: Sleepin' Bee; Rain Danse; Bye Bye Baby; Django's Castle; Cheek to Cheek; Lady J; Little Niles. CD2: A Little Peace; Brazilian Affair (Prelude; Love Song; Wedding Dance; Joy); I'm Late; Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You); High Clouds; How's Your Mama (Phil Woods' Theme).

Note: You can read the genesis of this Rediscovery column here.
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