Phil Woods, master of the alto sax, was born in Springfield, Massachusetts on November 2, 1931. He was 83 years old when he died unexpectedly on September 29, 2015, in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania. He was widely regarded as one of the most talented alto sax players ever.

JazzTimes and AllAboutJazz (among many others) published nice obits upon his death. The AllAboutJazz writeup includes an interview JazzWax creator Marc Myers conducted with Woods in 2009.

(Woods and his album “The Rev And I” were the subject of JFASN #30 on March 10, 2012. You can read it here.)

Like many other jazz musicians during the 1960’s, Woods became discouraged by the state of jazz in the U.S. and moved to France for a few years. In 1972 he returned to the America and has never looked back.

The Phil Woods album I want to discuss this week is one he recorded with his quintet and 1996, the Concord disk “Mile High Jazz: Live In Denver.”

The personnel for this outing were:

Phil Woods, alto sax
Bill Charlap, piano
Brian Lynch, trumpet
Steve Gilmore, bass
Bill Goodwin, drums



“Mile High Jazz: Live In Denver” gives us six tracks. The opener, written by pianist Charlap, is “Blues For K.B.” Like so many other great jazz songs, this one jumps right out of the starting gate and doesn’t stop bopping until it’s over.

Woods and Lynch trade the lead throughout the song, which runs over ten and a half minutes. Each receives an appreciative bit of applause from the audience as he hands the lead over to the other. Lynch is an accomplished trumpet player, more than capable of keeping up with Woods’ fast attack. When Charlap and Gilmore each get their turn in the spotlight, they show the horn players that you don’t need brass to bop, and the audience agrees!

“Song For Sass” follows, and is the only song on the disk that Woods himself wrote. At 12:17, it is also the longest song here.

Although drummer Goodwin is kept mainly in the background supporting Woods, he gives this bop piece an almost Latin tinge from time to time, just a hint of a whisper that maybe we are not in Kansas any more.

When Charlap takes over, he acquits himself so well that you wish they would let him have the rest of the song. They don’t, of course, and in due time bassist Gilmore steps up. Bass solos are hard to love on records because the volume is so low compared to other instruments. Gilmore does well, however, and then we’re back to the brass boys for the last couple of minutes.

Harlem Nocturne” is, of course, one of the most enduring and widely-recorded songs in jazz history, not to mention one of the most recognizable. It was written in 1939 by Earle Hagen (with words by Dick Richards). Hagen, who played trombone in several big bands in the 1930’s, wrote the song as a tribute to the great saxophone player Johnny Hodges.

Woods and the guys were certainly aware of the history of the song, and they give it their all in what is now one of my favorite versions.

The next song is one you’ll have to read about elsewhere, as I have a long-standing policy of not writing about any song (or album, for that matter) if I am aware that its main reason for existence is to perpetuate the belief in any kind of religion.

Benny Carter’s classic “Walkin’ Thing” is next. It opens with a mellow tone that matches both horns almost to a “T”. Once the head is out of the way, Lynch takes the lead and gives us a delightful performance. The song runs just under 12 minutes, and the guys do a superb job on it.

Clairevoyance” from trumpeter Lynch closes out the set. I don’t remember having heard it before, but according to Lynch’s web site, this song was written as an homage to the great jazz pianist, Horace Silver.

“Clairevoyance” changes pace repeatedly and holds your interest from start to finish. The audience was not bashful about showing their appreciation, and I’m fairly certain you will agree.

I am also fairly certain you will agree that the Phil Woods Quintet album, “Mile High Jazz: Live In Denver” will make a fantastic addition to your personal playlist, for a Saturday or any other night!

To learn more about Phil Woods and his music, visit his web site.

Also, NPR has a page with several resources devoted to Woods, including the entire 2003 episode of Marian McPartland’s Piano Jazz that he appeared on. With Woods on that occasion were bassist Gilmore and drummer Goodwin.

If all that is not enough, veteran jazz writer Scott Yanow has an extensive bio of Woods on the allmusic.com web site.

Your comments about this article and/or the subject are welcome! Please use the “Add a comment” area below. Rude, abusive comments and spam will be deleted.

Thank you!

Copyright © 2013 by Al Evans. All rights reserved.

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