Phil Woods-All Encompassing Alto Artistry

Phil Woods-All Encompassing Alto Artistry

Alto saxophonist Phil Woods spent his entire life and career pursuing jazz with a passion entirely informed by the saxophone greats that came before him.  An outgoing and opinionated man to the core, Phil Woods never shied away from any opportunity to express himself.  His saxophone playing crossed into many areas of jazz and popular music, from his work with Steely Dan (Dr. Wu from the classic Katy Lied recording), and Billy Joel (Just The Way You Are) to his many recordings as a leader squarely in the be bop idiom.  Known for his ebullient sound and near flawless technical command of the saxophone, Phil Woods is an ideal model for young saxophonists to emulate.  In his music one will find echoes of Benny Carter, Charlie Parker and Cannonball Adderley.  Over his long and celebrated career Phil Woods still managed to define himself in a very personal way; upon repeated listenings of his recorded legacy you will find his unique voice immediately identifiable.

Phil’s Wikipedia page provides a brief yet clear background from which to begin to view his highly regarded and successful career……  Reading this I am struck by how short the entry is.  If anyone has experience with Wikipedia Phil’s page could use a boost.

Phil Woods passed away in September of 2015, and here is his Obituary as published by the New York Times….

Phil’s website is still up and there is much to enjoy here, have a look ……  There are many transcriptions available here if you would like to delve deeper into Mr. Woods’ artistry…..

I first saw Phil Woods live in 1978 or 1979 at Kuumbwa Jazz Center in Santa Cruz.  I remember I went to hear a set with my mom, and I was struck by Wood’s gruff and slightly condescending manner towards his audience.  I also can still hear the warm sound of his alto filling that small space, his swirling and dense solos overwhelming me as a young saxophonist.  I was fortunate to hear him several times over the years at Kuumbwa, what a blessing to have such an incredible performance space in your small oceanside hometown…….

Over the years I’ve listened to and poached improvisation ideas from many Phil Woods recordings.  I recently stumbled onto this remastered set of his recordings entitled Phil Woods-The Classic Albums Collection 1954-1961.  Comprised of eight recordings on four discs, this set represents some of the best playing Woods ever recorded.  In particular the recording Warm Woods, represented here on Disc 4, has long been a favorite of mine.  His version of In Your Own Sweet Way, a Dave Brubeck composition, is sublime and swinging, a prime example of a young Phil Woods’ talent and style.   

While I have not transcribed a lot of Phil’s solos, here is a short solo on Doxy that I’ve used with students for a few years now.  This short and simple solo contains a bit of the essence of his playing……



Phil Woods is also notable for the recordings he made that featured his clarinet playing.  At one time a clarinet major at Julliard, many of Woods’ recordings include one tune where he mines that instruments depths with great results.  Two of my favorite examples of Woods’ clarinet work can be found on the Clark Terry recording Happy Horns, where he contributes short solos on Impulsive and Rockin’ in Rhythm…..It’s a shame Mr. Woods never got around to making a recording that truly featured his clarinet playing, that would have been one for the ages!

Phil Woods was also a fine composer in his own right.  His Three Improvisations for Saxophone Quartet can be found here on Amazon….



In addition to this saxophone quartet work he wrote a Saxophone Sonata for his former Julliard classmate Victor Morosco; Morosco recorded this work on his self produced and under appreciated Double Image recording.  You can hear the first movement on Youtube here….  In addition there exists a Jamey Aebersold Play A Long recording of Phil’s original compositions.  This would be a terrific introduction to his compositions and would shed some light on his harmonic thinking.  Although I have not explored this collection it seems well worth the effort to track it down for the serious minded student to study.

Here is a really cool Downbeat article from January 11th, 1979 that I have hung onto all these years.  It sheds light on what was  happening in Phil’s career at at this juncture.  The article speaks to how Woods was feeling at this mid point in his career at age 47, delving into life on the road and Phil’s philosophy towards his stellar working band at that time.  I love looking back at these old Downbeat articles, they really present a nice snapshot of some classic jazz from the past.

Woods Downbeat Cover

Woods Downbeat Article Pg 1
Woods Pg 2
Woods Pg 3


There are many Youtube video’s of Mr. Woods that are worth looking into.  This first one is a 40 minute plus Masterclass with some great moments of Phil discussing the music…..

This next one is a great juxtaposition of styles featuring Phil and the great pop saxophonist David Sanborn playing Senor Blues…….  And finally another clip with Sanborn and Phil on Sanborn’s Night Music show from 1988….  Willow Weep For Me!! What a great version this is.  Compare Woods’ bop style with Sanborn’s more commercial playing……great stuff.

Phil Woods was an amazing technician and a jazz musician of the highest order.  Not one to compromise his art, he ultimately left the lucrative studio work that provided him a living in his twenties and thirties and struck out as a leader, and upon is death he left behind a treasure trove of recorded saxophone music.  The refinement of his sound, the breadth and depth of his improvising, and his commitment to the music remain a lasting monument to a jazz life well lived.  Mr. Woods may now be gone but he should never be forgotten.  A complete, committed artist and a fearless improviser, he created timeless music for many decades.  Phil Woods was truly a giant among mere mortals for most of his life as a jazz saxophonist.  Well done Phil!!

1 Comment
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    Posted at 21:57h, 11 January Reply

    Enjoyed every bit of your post. Really looking forward to read more. Fantastic. Tootsie Padraic Marcie

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