Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Different Times and Different Places: A conversation with Phil Woods

by Marc Chénard

On February 28, 1959, a landmark concert took place in New York. A ten-piece band under the direction of the grand master Thelonious Monk premiered a number of his own pieces orchestrated for a large ensemble, a first for him. The resulting recording "The Thelonious Monk Orchestra At Town Hall" (Riverside Recordings, recently reissued in Concord's Keepnews Collection) remains on the finest albums of Monk's discography, if not of modern jazz. Much of the story of that now legendary concert is aptly recounted in a two-part interview feature with the album's producer, Orrin Keepnews, currently posted on youtube. 

Interestingly, three of the members of that orchestra are still around today: trombonist Eddie Bert, trumpeter Donald Byrd (essentially retired now from performance) and the still very much active altoist Phil Woods. Two days before the fiftieth anniversary of the event, Woods recollected some of his fading memories and observations concerning this show, including a few insights on the goings on before the event. And as a veteran of the jazz trenches, he went on to talk about another important chapter in his career, his European years. And far from slowing down (as can be seen at the end of the interview), it makes sense to have him tell us about some of his current recording and performing activities.

Long Ago and Far Away: The Town Hall Concert

Marc Chénard: As one of the three surviving of that concert, it's good to know for starters how you got involved in the first place. 

Phil Woods: Hall Overton recruited me. 

M. C.: That's interesting. On youtube, you can find podcasts of Orrin Keepnews (the record's producer) saying he has no idea of how Overton got involved in the project in the first place, and he never met anyone who could tell him either. 

P. W.: Can't tell you myself, it might be Jules Colomby who hired him — i.e. the concert producer, who then became Monk's manager during the sixties.

M.C.: At the time you were hired for that concert, had you ever played with Monk before that?

P.W.: That was the first time for me. We first got our parts, studied them on our own and went into the rehearsals, which lasted ten days, maybe two weeks. In any event, we were well prepared for the concert. We're professionals after all.

M.C.: Even if you hadn't played with Monk before, you still must have been acquainted with his music at that time. Had you played much of it yourself?

P.W.: You see, Hall Overton was teaching at Juilliard back then, so we'd have jam sessions there. That's where I first learned about the project. In fact he had transcribed Monk's piano solos, so I asked him if I could study them. By the time the first rehearsal came around, I knew them quite well. Now, when it says G7, there are many kinds of ways of playing that chord in his music. For me, I never play a song until I can play it at the piano, and even if I couldn't play all of Monk's runs and things, I could certainly analyze those transcriptions, and since I was a composition minor at Juilliard, I could then analyze all the small details that were required when it came to performing them, so doing that work beforehand came in very handy. Mind you, I never considered myself a Monk specialist, but I still studied it to the point of being well versed in this genius's very angular and jagged compositions. I mean they were striking, as history has proven. But again, having gone to the keyboard first, where those pieces were first realized, was a big asset in putting them into the saxophone.

M.C.: Do you feel that Monk's music falls well on the saxophone?

P.W.: Most of the music doesn't fall well on the piano. When playing Monk, it has something to do with comfort. Some of the things were absolutely impossible, and that's why we needed all those rehearsals. But we were very well prepared for it, as I think the results show.

M.C.: So it took quite some time to really get a good handle on the music?

P.W.: That depends of the tune.

M.C.: "Little Rootie Tootie" certainly has to be the showcase piece of the recording.

P.W.: That one was the most difficult one to do, for sure. But as I said, we got the music before that and we went home to practice our parts individually before we even had our first rehearsal. We worked on that piece the most during the rehearsals because of the chorus we had to play that was a transcription of Monk's own solo that he did a couple of years earlier.

M.C.: Being the alto player, you were basically the lead voice, so there was added responsibility on your shoulders.

P.W.: I was the only Juilliard graduate there, so Hall knew where to put the hard parts. He knew my capabilities.

M.C.: That concert, of course, stands out in Monk's work, but it wasn't a one-shot deal. You had the chance of performing that program Monk on a few more occasions after that.

P.W.: Sure, I did a long European tour after that (in 1967), and there was the Lincoln Center concert four years earlier but also a couple more in the States as well. In Europe the personnel was different though, Ben Riley was Monk's quartet drummer at the time, then there was Johnny Griffin who had moved over there a couple of years before. We went all over the continent, Scandinavia, Germany, France, don't remember all of the stops but it was a pretty long trip.

M.C.: I jogged my memory by listening to the Town Hall Concert again. Do you ever go back and listen to it yourself?

M.C.: Haven't done that for years.

M.C.: Of the originals, I believe you and Donald Byrd are still around today, is it also the case for Eddie Bert?

P.W.: Right. I don't think any of the others are alive now.

M.C. You mentioned the European tour, and you see excerpts of that in the Monk film documentary "Straight no Chaser". You played the music of the original concert with other pieces added on as well.

P.W.: There were some more tunes that we first performed during the Lincoln Center concert, the one that had Steve Lacy on it. By the way, as a very interesting sidebar, Steve Lacy, as you know, had a band at that time that only played Thelonious Monk's music, and guess who doesn't get one solo that evening? Now I don't know what Monk was trying to tell him, maybe: "Get your own music, man."

M.C.: Lacy also played with Monk before that, for a couple months, along with Charlie Rouse.

P.W.: True, but he still didn't get a solo on that concert. I find that very strange. I don't know what it means, but it's an interesting sidebar.

High Fly: The European Years

M.C.: It was after that big tour that you decided to settle there.

P.W.: It was in 1968.

M.C.: What stands out from that time was the creation of your quartet, the European Rhythm Machine, it wasn't too long after arriving that that band came together.

P.W.: Actually, it was immediately upon arrival. Jean-Louis Ginibre is the one who first put it together. He was the editor of Jazz Magazine in the sixties. His wife, Simone Chevalier, was a singer. She used to perform the same set with Bud Powell at the Blue Note Café (in Paris) but she had to write out the list for him each time because he never could remember it for the seven years they did it. Eventually she decided to retire from singing and decided to do booking instead, and I turned out to be her first client. They first came to visit me in London, where I was working at Ronnie Scott's with Gordon Beck, who eventually replaced George Gruntz at the piano chair. At that time, Henri Texier was still in the French army, and Daniel Humair was a very established drummer by then. You could say that the plate was there on the table, waiting for me. Jean-Louis then found me a place to live in France, and that a great help for me in getting my feet on the ground and having things start to happen for me.

M.C.: That was something of a Golden Era in Europe in those years. There were plenty of your fellow countrymen who were pretty dissatisfied with the situation back home and were doing the same as you.

P.W.: That was not a banner year for America.

M.C.: I read somewhere that Nixon's election didn't cheer you.

P.W.: Yeah, but I was not happy about Vietnam either. Basically, I was not playing that much jazz anymore, I was trapped in the studios and wanted to break that chain. I was now selling beer and cigarettes on television, that's not what I was put here to do.

M.C. But your stay lasted five years, what made you decide to come back?

P.W.: Well, at that point in jazz history, the mainstream was not so popular anymore in Europe; I mean they were pursuing a whole different thing. And after five years, there was that danger of wanting to make you local, especially in France, where they want you to lower your price to the level of a "local" musician, and that was not in my plans. I was always grateful to European audiences because they gave me the conviction that I could perform and that I was not as bad that I thought, but for me it was time to play for my supper in my own country, where I was still relatively unknown. So it was time for me to bring it home.

M.C.: Was there a specific opportunity waiting for you back home, or you just wanted to go back. Period.

P.W.: It was time for me to come home.

M.C.: You certainly don't regret the decision 35 years later, as your career shows.

P.W.: Well I did at the time.

M.C.: If I remember, you landed in L.A. first.

P.W.: Talk about a disaster. Quincy Jones was the only one who gave me a gig, and there were a couple of nights and Donte's, that was a period during which I had an experimental band in which I was playing electrified saxophone. My staying in the States was something of a fluke. I was actually heading back to France after a year on the West Coast, but I first made a stop in New York to say goodbye to everybody, since my homecoming was a complete failure. I was staying at Jerry Dodgion's place (a fellow alto player) when Michel Legrand's manager happened to call him up. They were looking for a sax player for an upcoming engagement at Jimmy's for a week, followed by a recording date. They were asking if Jerry could do it, but he wasn't available, so he told them that Phil Woods was staying with him, so he asked them if they wanted to talk to him. And the rest is history, as they say. It's very bizarre when you think about it, because I was going back to France and was saved from that because of Michel Legrand. Can you imagine: A Frenchman saved me from going back to France! I don't know who's playing tricks on me, but it's ironic to say the least. In any event, we made that record called "Images", which got the Grammy for best jazz album, so that reinforced my return to the States.

What's New: Children's Corner

M.C.: Let's turn to your current activities now. For starters: what's new on the recording front?

P.W.: As we're talking, I have a new release coming out this week on the Jazzed Media label. It's "Children's Suite" I wrote way back in 1961, just after coming back from the Quincy Jones big band tour that went over to Europe the play the music for a musical called "Free and Easy". As I was unpacking my things, I came across a book of poems by A.A. Milne and, to make a long story short, I wrote out 15 songs in a month. I then wrote the author a letter telling him about it and wondered if I could record them with his words. But he refused by saying he didn't want to have anything to do with jazz people. So I just put it aside. Years later, I found out that the Disney Corporation now had the rights to these writings and after many detours I finally got permission (some 41 years later) to perform and record them. And I'm indebted to a great British actor by the name of Peter Dennis, who I had worked with on a couple of projects in London. It's called "Phil Woods – The Children's Suite" (Jazzed Media jm1040). I wrote arrangements for a little big band with a string quartet and two added voices, Bob Dorough and Vicki Dony, as well as Peter Dennis who recited some of the poems. Beyond that, there is also a double songbook of 25 of my songs I did lyrics to, and I'll be in the studio tomorrow to overdub some solos on, that's for a recording on the Italian label Philology, the lyrics are sung by a great Italian singer by the name of Michelle Lombardi. I have just finished a commission from the New Jersey Saxophone Quartet. Of late, I've been doing some residencies at DePaul University, and I just came back from one last week where I worked with the kids there and performed as soloist with its big band, who was playing my music, arranged both by Jim McNeely and myself. I'm going back there in late May at which time I will recieve an honorary Doctorate with a concert of my music to be given on that occasion. So I'm pretty busy. In the months to come, I'll be appearing in Barcelona, then to the festival in Marciac. I'm not a stationary target, you know. And because my wife doesn't want me to play at home, I have to travel! 
(February 26, 2009)

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