Happy Birthday Phil! On Friday, November 3, from 8pm to Midnight Eastern. WGBH 89.7FM’s Jazz From Studio Four host Steve Schwartz celebrates the 75th birthday of alto saxophonist Phil Woods (born Nov. 2, 1931) with a four-hour retrospective of his ongoing career. One of the true masters of the bop vocabulary, Woods has played with an impressive array of artists—touring and recording with jazz legends Thelonious Monk, Bill Evans, and Benny Goodman and playing on pop albums by Billy Joel, Carly Simon and Steely Dan. I can’t think of a better way to enjoy an evening while simultaneously boning-up on large slice of jazz history. If you’re not within earshot via terrestrial radio, tune in online at wgbh.org/jazz
Meanwhile, here’s a little appetizer. It’s an excerpt from the liner notes I wrote for a live concert recording in honor of Johnny Pate, featuring Phil Woods, James Moody, Monty Alexander, Shirley Horn, and Ron Carter, among others.
…“Minor Detail,” opens with Pate playing solo piano – the first of many pleasures yet to come. The solo introduction to this minor-key ballad is thick with rich chordal harmonies that weave through the reed and horn sections. Then an alto saxophone is heard in the distance, and it’s Phil Woods, in his trademark black cap, who emerges from the wings playing. Soon a deeper horn sounds and James Moody wanders onstage playing tenor. Woods kisses the top of Moody’s balding head, and the two go on musically conversing with one another. The jazz ensemble members are mesmerized, and though it is not discernable to the ear, they are so awestruck that they nearly miss their musical cue to come back in. Woods and Moody wander off the stage.
At the microphone again, Pate waits just a beat to compose himself, and tries to lighten the moment by joking. “An intrusion,” he says, gesturing toward the wings. “They just let anyone wander around.” He tells the audience about the day he heard Phil Woods playing alto on a Dizzy Gillespie recording, and how he thought to himself that if he were ever in a position to produce records, Phil Woods would top his list of artists. Bringing Woods back onstage, “all the way from Pennsylvania,” his voice cracks with tears. A week earlier, Pate predicted this would happen, telling Spencer Patterson of the Las Vegas Sun, “I haven’t been in contact with most of these people for years. Seeing them all at once, all together will be quite a thing. I’ll need three or four boxes of Kleenex.”
It may not seem like such a long way from Pennsylvania to Nevada, but for someone battling emphysema and down with the flu just days earlier, it is a very long way indeed. Still, Woods would not have missed today’s events. Woods’ handwritten note to Pate, reprinted in the program book, says, “Your faith in me long ago lives forever in my heart.” Woods means it. He tells the audience about his life as a struggling musician in the 1960s. “I couldn’t get arrested. ‘Buy a flute, be a studio man,’ they told me. I said ‘forget it.’” Woods moved to Europe where he hoped the musical climate would be more hospitable to jazz musicians. But in 1968, salvation came from stateside in the form of Johnny Pate.
Then East Coast director of A&R for Verve Records/MGM, Pate was in a position to make Woods an offer. Tracking him down in France, Pate offered Woods a record deal with a dream rhythm section (Herbie Hancock on piano, Richard Davis on bass and Grady Tate on drums), augmented by a string section led by Gene Orloff. The album is titled Round Trip. “I’m talking the truth,” Woods tells us. “I went back to France with a shitload of money, and a few months later I was invited to play at Newport. I was back, baby! I was back, and that’s ’cause of Johnny Pate, and I want to say thank you.”
Woods sounds breathless when talking, but not when playing. He is featured on the next two selections, “Carolyn” and “Fill the Woods With Laughter,” both of which are on that 1968 recording. The first, a ballad dedicated to Pate’s wife, is a simple theme with variations, rich harmonies, a walking bass line, and a sweet trumpet turn at the end. The students acquit themselves well, breaking into double time before the bridge, but it is Woods who plays with such love that my eyes tear up. Pate is standing on stage, bending backward from the knees as if the music is the wind and he is a sail. Much later, the only words Pate will be able to muster are “I love what he does with a ballad. I just stood there in awe.” By the time they finish the second tune, the audience is cheering and all Pate can say now is “Wow!”