Phil Woods was one of a hundred truly great musicians I’ve been blessed (and I do mean that literally) to work with; just once. A last minute sub. A teaching seminar. A gig where the guy was doing a local event and didn’t want to bring the ‘real’ band. Some society gig. So rather than being a great time it’s often kinda awkward. You’re next to this ‘god’ and you’re only going to be together for a few hours. It’s like getting a seat on a plane next to yer childhood idol. Do we talk? Can I ask burning questions? How much do I get to gush? Will I do something stupid? No. Maybe. Not much. Yes.
I confess, I don’t particularly enjoy the saxophone. Don’t get me wrong: some of the greatest music ever performed has been made on the sax. Frankly, the basic tone often sounds to me like what it was invented to be: a really loud, easy to play band instrument. Don’t be angry. Mozart often said that he couldn’t stand the sound of the flute for some reason–didn’t stop him from writing some of the most beautiful flute music -ehhhver-. Everyone just enjoys certain timbres more than others. And by the way, the guitar is just like the sax. You can have fun with it almost immediately and impress people. Unlike a trumpet or violin or other ‘real’ instrument, a kid can actually start making some melody with a sax (or guitar) in about an hour. You don’t have to suffer for five years to get good on it like with a violin. And maybe that’s why there are so few really outstanding saxophonists (and guitarists.)
So a lot of saxophonists play ‘good enough’. As lovely as they sound in one context, they can never transcend their style in a way you can’t quite put your finger on. They’re great and no one should ever complain, but unlike, say the violin, the saxophone is to this day more an instrument about potential. Like the guitar, as cool as it is, it’s kinda stuck within certain genres.
My point is that when I first stood next to Phil Woods and heard even his warm-up notes, I instantly heard: this guy is speaking through his horn. He transcends the horn. He had the kind of control and note choice that I’ve only personally ever witnessed with concert violinists and pianists… people who started playing at like the age of five.
In fact I think I’ve maybe played with about 10 guys who have that complete mastery of their instrument; guys who were playing exactly how the instrument was meant to be played. And frankly, he’s the only saxophone player I’ve ever worked with who projected that to me instantly and on a visceral level. It sounds stupid, but there’s this feeling you get when yer standing next to someone who has ‘the power’.
The highest compliment I can pay is that he made the saxophone feel truly ‘legit’ to me. Or to put it another way: I wish that composers of the calibre of Ravel or Bartok were alive today who could’ve heard Phil Woods. If there had been a Phil Woods in 1925, I think concert music would be different. He would’ve drawn great writers to make truly great saxophone music that crossed a lot of boundaries. He was a guy who transcended (literally ‘went beyond’).