Moving back to the U.S. from Europe in 1973, Phil Woods found himself a stranger in his own country. The economy had soured, and jazz was being squeezed out at clubs and record stores by folk, rock and soul. Discouraged, Phil planned to return to Paris. But just as he was set to depart, a lucky break turned into a multirecord contract for RCA. Session dates followed, including solo spots on a series of highly influential pop-rock albums in need of an authentic jazz edge. [Photo of Phil Woods in Syracuse in 2007 by John Herr]
During this period, Phil unleashed stunning solos on Steely Dan's Doctor Wu (off the album Katy Lied) and Paul Simon's Have a Good Time (off the Phil Ramone-produced Still Crazy After All These Years). Then in 1977, Ramone [pictured] asked Phil to add a solo on Billy Joel's sudsy Just the Way You Are. Phil's 16 measures of blowing followed by a second solo to fade out were so perfect and emotional that they all but stole the song right out from under Joel. It's no wonder Joel initially wanted Ramone to scrap the track after listening to the playback the next day.
From that point on, Phil was a major jazz force (and rock icon) in his own right, becoming one of the most recorded alto saxophonists in jazz history. Over the course of his career, Phil has appeared on more than 600 sessions (Benny Carter recorded on 554).
In Part 4, Phil talks about Just the Way You Are, Phil Ramone, why he dedicated an album in 2004 to Quincy Jones, and how Michel Legrand saved his career in late 1973:
JW: You still get stopped on the street?
PW: People come up to me all the time to ask me about that. My favorite was the young saxophonist who came up to me on some gig I was playing and said, “Are you the guy on the Billy Joel record?” I said, “Yes I am.” He said, “Have you done anything on your own.” [laughs] I said, “A couple of things.”
JW: Did you hear the Billy Joel song before you went into the booth?
PW: Yeah, of course. It was just me and Phil Ramone. He played me the track and showed me the music.
JW: What’s so special about Phil Ramone?
PW: He’s my friend, and he knows music. We were at Juilliard together. He was a violin major. We go back to our childhood. Or at least our youthful teens. When he hired me for a record date, it was because he thought I could contribute something.
JW: Ever get called for stuff you found hard?
PW: Sure. I can’t do funk very well. It’s not my thing. But if it’s a song with a musical story, I can play it. Phil [Ramone] recognized that early from all the dates that I did.
JW: Did you enjoy making This Is How I Feel About Quincy in 2004?
PW: Yeah, I loved it. I love the songs but I’m also paying tribute to a mentor and a dear friend. Very few people know what he’s all about. That’s why I wanted to make sure people know how special he is. Listeners weren’t in Europe when we were there. They don’t know the full story.
JW: What full story?
PW: They don’t know about the time before I joined the band, when I called Quincy and said, “I don’t have enough money to feed my kids.” Quincy said, “Come to Paris and I’ll give you half of what I got.” At the time he had 100 francs and he gave me 50, which was about $10. In those days you could get groceries with that kind of money. People say Quincy has too much money and has sold out. I say, “You didn’t hear the big band.”
JW: You're about to release a new album.
PW: Yes. It's my Children’s Suite. I wrote it 40 years ago. On the CD, I used my Little Big Band and a string quartet. Bob Dorough [pictured] and Vicki Doney appear on vocals. The suite was inspired by A. A. Milne’s book of poems for children called Now We Are Six, Then I have a DVD coming out from this session, and an album with my quintet of Billy Strayhorn material. I’m also working on a piece for the New Jersey Saxophone Quartet that will debut in July at the World Saxophone Congress in Bangkok, Thailand. So I’m still pretty busy. [Photo of Bob Dorough by Bob Weidner]
JW: When you close your eyes and think back, is there one song that you love more than any other?
PW: Yeah, You Must Believe in Spring by Michel Legrand.
PW: After I came back from Paris in 1973, I stayed in L.A. for a minute before heading back to New York. I was going to had back to Paris. Nothing was happening for me in the States. It was a failed experiment. I was trying to be a prophet in my own land.
JW: Where were you living?
PW: I was staying with Jerry Dodgion, the saxophonist. We were just kind of hanging out one day and saying goodbye to everybody since I was returning soon for Paris. The phone rang, and it was Michel Legrand’s manager who needed a saxophonist to play with Michel. His manager said, “I got Eddie Daniels just for the first week but I need someone at Jimmy's club. We’re going to record live, and I need a good man.” [Photo of Jerry Dodgion by Ed Berger]
PW: Jerry said, “I can’t do it but Phil Woods is sitting right here. Do you want to talk to him?”
JW: What happened next?
PW: Well, to make a long story short, I did the gig. That was my solo spot. I had just split up with Chan, I had just fallen in love with Jill, my current wife. She was ill at the time, and I didn’t know what I was doing. I was going out of my head. I had to deal with divorce proceedings, my future wife was sick and I was heading back into the New York clubs with my tail between my legs to record with Michel.
JW: What's so special about You Must Believe in Spring?
PW: It's one of the highlights of our live recording for RCA. When the tape was rolling, I said to myself, “I’ve got to come up with something here. This is it.” Well, I guess I did because that led to a record contract with RCA.
JW: So you decided to stay in the States.
PW: Yes. For the next RCA project, Michel wrote a piece called Images that we recorded in London in 1975 with strings. It won a Grammy that year, and the rest is history.
JW: Pretty big twist.
PW: I know. It was ironic that I was heading back to France because nothing was happening here, and my career was saved by Michel Legrand, who had lived just down the road from me in Paris. So that song has a lot of importance for me.
JW: Is it available on CD?
PW: I don’t know. I don’t buy ‘em. I just make ‘em. [laughs].
JazzWax tracks: Billy Joel's The Stranger was recorded in July 1977. But a month earlier in June, Billy Joel performed the song during a concert at Carnegie Hall. Last year, Sony Legacy released a double CD with the original album and the previously unreleased concert. To hear how important Phil Woods' solo is on Just the Way You Are, listen to the two recordings. The live version features tenor saxophonist Richie Cannata, who delivers a perfectly fine solo. But when you listen to the studio track with Phil's solo, you realize immediately what Phil Ramone heard in his head: A sense of urgency. You can buy the two-CD 30th anniversary set ot The Stranger here.
Unfortunately, Phil and Michel Legrand's Live at Jimmy's is out of print and very rare. The Grammy- winning Images also is out of print but available from independent sellers here for the price of a dinner for two with wine.
This Is How I Feel About Quincy is a wonderful miniaturized interpretation of Quincy Jones' fabulous big band sessions. On some tracks, Phil uses his quintet featuring Brian Lynch, Bill Charlap, Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin. On others he adds Nelson Hill, Tom Hamilton, Bobby Routch and Rick Chamberlain, completing his Little Big Band. All of the arrangements are by Phil, except for The Pawnbroker, which is by Brian Lynch. The album is available as a download at iTunes or as a CD here.
One of the finest documentaries made of Phil Woods is Phil Woods: A Life in E Flat, produced by Graham Carter and directed by Rich Lerner. What makes this DVD special, in addition to Phil's transparent candor, is that it's split between biography (as told by Phil) and the making of the Quincy Jones album. You'll find it here.
JazzWax clip: No matter what album Phil appears on, he always comes to play, and his sound is unmistakable. For those who may not be familiar with the think-rock group Steely Dan, here's a clip of Doctor Wu from the 1975 album Katy Lied. Dig Phil's alto edge in two places. As with Just the Way You Are, this track would have been nearly meaningless without Phil's restless solo...