Written by Grant Jackson from NPR
On this episode of Piano Jazz, originally broadcast in 2003, alto saxophonist Phil Woods brings his quintet’s rhythm section — bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin — by for a session with host Marian McPartland. Woods has been called “The New Bird,” as in the heir to bop alto pioneer Charlie “Bird” Parker. He’s in elite company, as fellow hard bop altos Sonny Stitt and Julian “Cannonball” Adderley also got that treatment early in their careers. After a lifetime of playing, the 78-year-old Woods is still going strong and still finding new ways to apply bop to standards and lesser-known tunes.
Woods launches into this session with an opening solo in “How About You?” that bounces along at an easy-swinging tempo. He also inserts a few bars of his blistering bop fury, but Woods admits to a desire for slowing things down a bit these days.
“When we’re young, we want to fill the air with notes,” he says. “But it’s more impressive to play one note that means something. Now, I want to slow down. That’s the art.”
Woods demonstrates the art of slowing down in the next tune, “A Sleepin’ Bee,” in which he brings the pure, soulful tone of his alto to the fore, with some acrobatic 16th notes here and there.
With his quintet, Woods plays more obscure material — including forgotten show tunes — that many other jazz musicians pass up in favor of standards. However, in the ballad “Lover Man,” Woods proves that he’s not lost interest in cutting his own path through a well-trodden tune. And McPartland plays a solo version of one of her tunes, “Twilight World.” It may not be a standard, but the tune piqued the interest of the late, great Johnny Mercer, who penned a lyric.
“What a gorgeous song,” Woods exclaims. “I must have a copy so I can add it to my list of tunes for the quintet.”
Intense Yet Lyrical
Next, the musicians get together for Irving Berlin‘s “Blue Skies.” Woods’ intense yet lyrical alto demands attention, as he plays the tune at a cool tempo and his rhythm players know just where to give way. The session delves deeper with the sentimental “I’ll See You Again,” written by Noel Coward. The tune allows Woods to stretch out on full, sorrowful notes.
“The melody plays itself,” Woods says. “There are some tunes you just have to decorate, without any improvising. But it is hard to restrain yourself.”
Hickory House Jam
Things pick up again in the swinging “How High the Moon,” a boilerplate tune for many bebop arrangements, including supreme alto Charlie Parker’s “Ornithology.” At Woods’ request, McPartland follows with a Hickory House Trio-inspired rendition of “Love You Madly,” with bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin. In the 1950s, McPartland’s trio had a long-running gig at the Hickory House on New York’s 52nd Street (hear a session with the Hickory House Trio here).
The closer for this episode of Piano Jazz is a hard-driving take on “Fine and Dandy,” with drummer Bill Goodwin setting a brisk tempo as Woods lights up the changes and McPartland takes the tune to the outfield with climbing chords.
“That was fun! It’s been a great time,” McPartland says. Woods agrees, adding, “Thank you. Right back at you, old friend.”
Originally recorded July 25, 2002. Originally broadcast Jan. 28, 2003.