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Top 10 Favorite Phil Woods Tracks

Phil Woods has been an inexorable part of my consciousness since early in my jazz training. When I was 16 or 17 my friend Noah Bloom, a Tom Harrell devotee, turned me on to the classic Woods Quintet with Tom, pianist Hal Galper and the rhythm tandem of Bill Goodwin and Steve Gilmore, who stayed with Woods from 1974 on. I soon discovered both his earlier work and his voluminous contributions as a sideman.

Phil Woods is one of those figures who seemed utterly timeless, yet everybody moves on to the next dimension. He himself didn’t feel he was an innovator, and that in and of itself is constructive. He was a beloved figure not because he blazed new trails but because he put his own stamp on the existing materials and mastered those materials on a level that few others have. As of yesterday, I need to get used to putting him in the past tense as a human being, but as an artistic contributor his music will always exist in the present.

1 ) “Together We Wail” by George Wallington (from Jazz for the Carriage Trade)

Phil had many wonderful and significant front-line relationships with trumpet players, and this 1956 session by pianist Wallington is the first of his numerous recorded collaborations with the great Donald Byrd (check out their album The Young Bloods too). This is an early Woods composition, and it burns.

2 ) “Quintessence” by Quincy Jones (from The Quintessence)

As much as he could burn, Phil could play with tremendous romantic lyricism as well. Nowhere is that more evident than on the title track of this Quincy Jones session from 1961. It is a gorgeous ballad and serves as a feature for Phil’s singing tone and melodic mastery.

3 ) “Chromatic Banana” (from Phil Woods and his European Rhythm Machine)

This 1970 track from Paris documents the period Phil spent as an ex-pat in Europe as well as showing his ability to branch into realms of electric/rock music and avant-garde harmony/free improvisation, all while maintaining his signature tone and phrasing. His collaborations with European musicians continued through the end of his life even after he moved back to the U.S.

4 ) “Samba du Bois” (from Musique du Bois)

This song, exploring Phil’s family heritage, is from a burning 1974 session with the cutting-edge rhythm section of Jaki Byard, Richard Davis and Alan Dawson, all of whom are well-featured on this energetic track.

5 ) “Doctor Wu” by Steely Dan (from Katy Lied)

Heck, even Phil’s son thought this was the coolest thing he ever did, so I’m not going to feel embarrassed for putting it on the list. Phil’s solo on this tune is possibly the superlative example of Steely Dan’s use of guest jazz soloists, and to my ear it is (no offense, Billy Joel) Phil’s shining moment as a pop soloist.

6 ) “Julian” (from I Remember)

This 1978 session in London is comprised of tributes composed by Phil in dedication to deceased friends and colleagues. The record opens up with this soulful and irresistibly catchy tribute to Cannonball Adderley.

7 ) “Infant Eyes” (from Integrity)

By the time of this 1984 session, Phil had settled on the above-mentioned personnel for his Quinet (after some years logged by other great musicians including pianist Mike Melito and guitarist Harry Leahy). The ballad features were an important part of their shows, and I remember being really struck the first time I heard this, partly because it was so gorgeous and partly because it affirmed Phil’s versatility, given the modern, non-bop-based harmonies of the Wayne Shorter composition.

8 ) “My Azure” (from Gratitude)

The quintet is featured here again, but with Phil showing his oft-neglected but brilliant skills on the clarinet, while Harrell switches to flugelhorn. The composition is by colleague Bill Mays, who would ultimately succeed Bill Charlap as the last pianist (wow it feels weird to write that) of the great quintet.

9 ) “Loose Change” by persoin (from The Rev and I)

From his days playing alto duels with Gene Quill in the 1950s to his multiple albums with Lee Konitz to his late-career collaborations with European alto player George Robert, Phil was always up for the stimulation of a multi-saxophone blow-out. This 1998 session co-features the great tenor player Johnny Griffin along with a rhythm section of Cedar Walton, Peter Washington and Ben Riley. This high-energy number was composed by longtime Woods collaborator Hal Galper.

10 ) “Jessica’s Day” (from This Is How I Feel About Quincy)

The latter-day incarnation of Woods’ quintet (with Brian Lynch on trumpet and Bill Charlap on piano) is augmented into a larger group here on this album of dedications to Quincy Jones. This gorgeous track is a re-working of a tune of Quincy’s on which Phil was a featured soloist nearly 50 years earlier in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band.

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