The death of Phil Woods last week put me in mind of a special kind of jazz musician.
When I first became fanatical about what was then called “modern jazz,” Phil Woods seemed to be on every record I bought. He played in Dizzy Gillespie’s big band, he was on a Monk big band record, and in bands led by George Russell and Quincy Jones. He had his own quintet with fellow alto-man Gene Quill, recorded with Kenny Dorham, Donald Byrd, Red Garland, Oliver Nelson and Art Farmer, among others. Much later he did a nice album with Rob McConnell and the Boss Brass. The obit writers made a big deal out of the fact that Woods recorded solos on tracks by pop artists such as Paul Simon, Billy Joel and Steely Dan, but what mattered more was the great group he fronted from the ’80s on which included, at one time, Tom Harrell on trumpet, and later Brian Lynch.
And what stuck out about him was the sheer abandon with which he played the instrument. Something about the enthusiasm and the energy he brought to any recording said: “I really love playing this horn
In a music that sometimes tends toward the introspective, this glad-to-be-here quality is refreshing and rare. As a trumpet player, I think of Louis Armstrong, of course, and later, Dizzy Gillespie. The guy enjoyed what he was doing. Clifford Brown had it, as did Lee Morgan.
It’s a subjective thing, probably having a lot to do with the listener. For fun, make a list of the people you listen to who have this quality. I heard it in Pepper Adams and Johnny Griffin and the great trombonist Frank Rosolino. Art Blakey had it, and so did Ray Brown, but it’s not a quality only associated with artists of years gone by. This year at the Ottawa jazz festival, I found it in spades in the quirkily intense group Kneebody. And if you go to jazz camp, catch Rémi Bolduc jamming in the boat house. That’s what it is.
The other night I heard Ted Warren playing drums with Peter Hum’s quintet. It was there too. When artists clearly love what they are doing, it is difficult for audiences not to appreciate them. This sense of engagement is not the same as showboating. I head for the exits when I feel that the soloist is trying to milk applause, when the saxophone player honks on one note, the trumpet player screeches incessantly or the drummer plays a five-minute solo.
That kind of showboating can be found in all the arts and, as in jazz, it attracts an audience. You can make your own list. But the people on it won’t endure as long as the writers, painters, actors who show a real engagement with their art.
The movie A Walk in the Woods, sent me back to the writing of Bill Bryson. Nobody has more fun writing. Elmore Leonard had it. You can guess that Shakespeare had it. Margaret Atwood has it. Don’t be deceived by her laconic public speaking. When she writes, she is going for it and having a hell of a great time, even when she’s writing about the end of the world — actually, especially, when she’s writing about the end of the world.
The great baseball philosopher, Willie Stargell (outfield, Pittsburgh Pirates), once said: “When they start the game, they don't yell, ‘Work ball.’ They say, ‘Play ball.’” And we play jazz, don’t we? Phil Woods certainly did.
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About this blog
Tune Up won't be a calendar of events — Ottawa Jazz Happenings takes care of that. But it will discuss events and issues of interest to the JazzWorks community. Journalist, author, trumpet player and a jazz camper since 1999, Charley Gordon is a former vice-president of JazzWorks.