Good-Bye, Phil Woods: In Honor of an Alto Sax Legend

When I got the news last night that Phil Woods had died the day before, on September 29, 2015, I was stunned. Not Phil Woods! Not my main man, my hero on the alto sax whom, among all the luminaries of the instrument, including even Bird and Cannonball, I have admired and learned from the most. Not Phil. But of course, why not? We all go at some point, and Phil was eighty-three and in poor health. He had lived a full life; he had seen a huge slice of jazz history and carved his own considerable niche in that history; he had accomplished things that most musicians only dream of; and in the process, he left a legacy of music richer than the mines of Moria. I first heard of Phil back in my early twenties in music school. I heard him described as a "lyrical" player, and while I didn't know what the word meant, I determined to find out. So I purchased an album of Phil's titled I Remember, and "lyrical" acquired meaning through melody and timbre. Here was this beautiful tone, so full of warmth and joy and body, married to an incredible sense of swing. And here was a way with a ballad that just . . . well, I listened to the tune "Paul" over and over and over, mesmerized. The way Phil played it—so beautifully, so sensitively, so full of emotion—moved me to tears. I mean that most truly. Phil Woods could render a ballad with such sublimity and freshness and, above all, sincerity, that I would quite literally weep. His solo on Michelle Legrand's "The Summer Knows" took my breath away the first time I heard it, and it still does. Lyrical? The word doesn't begin to describe what Phil Woods could do with an alto sax. But of course, ballads were just a part of what Phil played with excellence. He could cut through the most harmonically complex changes—bop tunes such as "Hallucinations"—at frantic tempos with an ease and inventiveness that left other players, even the most accomplished, in the dust. And you always knew it was Phil playing. There was no mistaking that sound and that approach. I heard Phil play live three times. My most memorable was with my brother Pat, who, when I visited him years ago in Port Townsend, Washington, had made reservations for dinner at Jazz Alley in Seattle. There I sat, dining on steak while Phil and his combo blew incredible sounds from the stage just twenty feet from our table. It doesn't get any better than that. Now Phil is gone. The man and the horn that blazed their long, meteoric trail across the jazz firmament have flamed out at last. But like Bird, whom he so deeply admired, Phil lit a torch whose brightness burns in the horns of countless altoists worldwide. Phil Woods has many children. I am proud to be one of them. Thank you, Phil. You gave this world much beauty, and you showed the way beyond Bird for alto players like me. Now you reside among the legends. You will be missed. And the music you made ensures that you will never, ever be forgotten.

Ornithology: A Charlie Parker Alto Sax Solo Transcription

OrnithologyThe beboppers of the 1940s and 1950s advanced the use of contrafacts,* and the godfather of bebop, alto saxophonist Charlie Parker, used them liberally. After the many tunes he wrote over the chord changes to "I Got Rhythm," the contrafact he probably recorded most was the tune "Ornithology," which utilizes the changes to the old standard, "How High the Moon."

I have no idea exactly how many recordings exist of Bird holding forth on "Ornithology." I only know that there are lots. The tune was clearly a favorite vehicle for Parker, and the transcription shown here captures his first 32 bars of an extended flight. I hope to transcribe the rest of it in time, but the process keeps getting interrupted by other priorities, so for now at least, I thought I'd share this much of Bird's solo with you. It's plenty 'nuff to whet your chops on.

Charlie Parker not only had a phenomenal technique, but an equally amazing melodic concept. Both are on display here. Just click on the image and enjoy soaring with Bird.

If you enjoyed this post, visit my Jazz Theory, Technique & Solo Transcriptions for many more transcriptions, licks and technical exercises, and educational articles on jazz.


* Contrafacts are new melodies set to the harmonies of preexisting tunes.

New Years Eve Gig at the Cobblestone

Man, this year has blown by fast, hasn't it! Five days from now we'll have turned the corner into circa 2011. New Years Eve is the last of the big holidays. After that, we get down to the business of doing winter up here in the circumboreal region. So what are you doing for New Years Eve? How's about enjoying it with Steve Durst and me at the Cobblestone Bistro here in Caledonia, Michigan? We'll be playing jazz standards through the dinner hours from 6:00-10:00 p.m. Let me tell you a bit about the Cobblestone, because it's a jewel. Located on the east side of M-37 (aka Cherry Valley Road) on the south end of Caledonia, the Cobblestone is designed for ambiance. Step inside and you'll find an elegant, modestly sized dining room that features a fireplace, a waterfall fountain, superb cuisine, a selection of world-class wines, and a very nice bar. We're talking destination dining right here in little old Caledonia. If you're looking for a cozy place to spend the evening with your special someone, you'll be absolutely delighted. Of course, besides all of the above, this New Years Eve you'll also get Steve on the keyboards and me on the alto saxophone providing live jazz to complement the mood. So come and enjoy dinner with us in one of the nicest settings you can imagine. Here's the info:
• Date & Time: December 31, 6:00-10:00 p.m. • Place: The Cobblestone Bistro & Banquet Center • Address: 9818 Cherry Valley Ave. SE (M-37), Caledonia, MI • Phone: (616) 588-3223
If the weather proves to be as warm as is currently forecast, this New Years Eve should be perfect for a night out. Spend it with us at the Cobblestone! I hope to see you there.

Charlie Parker: His Music and Life (Book Review)

Intellectually, all saxophonists understand that Charlie Parker had to pay his dues just like anyone else. We've heard the stories about a high-school-age Parker learning to play on a clunky old artifact of an alto saxophone held together by rubber bands; about his mortification when drummer Jo Jones "gonged" him by skittering a cymbal across the floor at a jam session; about Parker woodshedding for 13-hour stints in the Ozarks, developing his formidable technique. In theory at least, we know that Bird wasn't born with an alto sax in his hands. He had a learning curve just like the rest of us mere mortals. There was even--and I realize this will leave many of you in a state of shock and denial, but it's nevertheless true--a time when Bird sucked. We know these things. Personally, though, I still find the idea of Charlie Parker as a novice hard to wrap my mind around. So reading the book Charlie Parker: His Music and Life by Carl Woideck has proved not only enlightening, but also reassuring.* Musical genius though he was, Bird was still just a very human, flawed possessor of a God-given gift that he worked hard to develop. Seen in that light, Parker represents not an unattainable ideal, but a waymaker, a teacher, and an inspiration who encourages the rest of us to keep at it; to push past our personal limitations; to practice, practice, and practice some more. A number of excellent biographies have been written on Charlie Parker, providing fascinating glimpses into his quirky personality, immense talent, and tragic excesses. Rather than merely adding one more book to the firmament of Charlie Parker life stories, Woideck has taken a different approach, focusing on the development of Bird as a musician. Woideck's tome offers eye-opening and profitable insights into the different phases of Charlie Parker's music, from Parker's apprenticeship with Kansas City saxophonist Buster Smith, to his tenures with the Jay McShann and Fletcher Henderson big bands, to his co-development of new musical concepts with trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, to his peak playing years in the late 40s, to his latter period in the 50s, when Parker's sense that he had taken the bebop approach as far as he could left him groping for a new direction even as his addictions increasingly took their toll. A glance at the table of contents reveals the book's logical, easy-to-follow organization. Part one offers a brief biographical sketch of Bird, creating a context for the examination of his musicianship that follows. Part two explores Parker's music in four different periods: 1940–43, 1944–46, 1947–49, and 1950–55. Woideck substantiates his discussion of Parker's musical trajectory and playing style with copious analyses of Bird solos, using excerpts from such tunes as "Honey and Body," "Embraceable You," "Ko Ko," "I've Found a New Baby," "Body and Soul," "Swingmatism," and many more to illustrate Bird's changing palette of nuances and techniques. This is easily the most comprehensive exploration of Parker's music that I've come across, made all the more so by appendices that provide a select discography and four complete solo transcriptions: "Honey and Body," "Oh, Lady Be Good!" "Parker's Mood" (take 5), and "Just Friends." Being an alto sax man myself, like Bird, I could wish that the solos had been transcribed in the Eb alto key that Parker played them in. However, from a standpoint of general usefulness to all musicians, it's understandable that the transcriptions and discussion examples appear in concert pitch. Painstakingly researched and written with clarity and crispness, Charlie Parker: His Music and Life is a fascinating and enriching book for any musician and a must-read for alto saxophonists. __________________________ * Carl Woideck, Charlie Parker: His Music and Life (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1996).

Bird Song: Hearing Charlie Parker for the First Time

If there is one name that is synonymous with the alto saxophone, it's Charlie Parker. For that matter, no jazz musician of any kind--saxophonist, trumpet player, bassist, pianist, you name it--can explore the craft without becoming keenly aware of, if not at some point deeply immersed in, the music of Bird. If Dizzy Gillespie was the clown prince of the bebop school, Charlie Parker was its pied piper, a quirky and unpredictable genius whose God-given creative torch burned too brightly to be quickly extinguished by the excesses that eventually overcame him. Some jazz musicians grow up with Parker played regularly at home as a vital part of the musical ambiance. Others discover Parker's music later in life. I fall into the latter category. Ours was not a particularly musical household, though Mom loved the Nutcracker Suite and Dad dug his Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, and Sidney Bechet records.  My own musical tastes, once they began to develop, naturally tended toward the rock of the seventies, particularly art rock bands such as Jethro Tull, King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, and Pink Floydd. I did have the advantage of playing in a big band beginning in the eighth grade. That experience gave me an invaluable exposure to the music of Basie and Ellington, and to the American songbook at large. But bebop? What was that? Then came my first year at Aquinas College, and a course on modern music appreciation with Dr. Bruce Early. The class covered plenty of ground, as I recall, including the music of some of my favorite rock bands. Inevitably, we got into the various kinds of jazz, which was Bruce's real thrust with the class. Dixieland I was familiar with, and as for big band swing, I had been playing that since junior high school. But suddenly, jazz began to take on deeper dimensions for me. And one day, Bruce dropped a record onto the turntable, and out of the speakers came the most unbelievable saxophone music I had ever heard. It was blazing. Brilliant. Blinding. Beautiful. Wild, yet--though I wouldn't have thought of the description at the time--wonderfully logical. That was my first exposure to Charlie Parker, and it left me stunned. How on earth could anyone play a saxophone like that? I didn't have ears enough to comprehend what it was that I had heard. I only knew that it pointed toward possibilities on the alto sax that I had never dreamed of. It was like stepping through a door out of a tiny room and discovering an entire mountain range on the other side. Fortunately, I was too young and too dumb to feel utterly overwhelmed. That's probably why I'm still playing the saxophone today. Some contemporaries of Parker weren't so fortunate. I read of one saxophonist who, after hearing Bird in flight, pitched his horn into the river in despair. Today I understand that sentiment a little better--because, now that I'm more than twice as old as Parker was when he first lit his fire and greased his skillet, I still can't cook the way he could. I have, however, learned a lot from him, and continue to learn. If Bird hadn't been given to the monstrous indulgences that eventually destroyed him, I wonder, as many musicians have wondered, what else he might have accomplished. Would bebop have been his apogee, his singular torch against whose sun-like flame all his future achievements would have paled? Or would it have been the spark to still brighter creative expressions? Dizzy is still with us; had Bird's life been other than what it was, he might be here, too. But it wasn't and he's not, and all we can do is speculate on what might have been or might not have been--and absorb the alto saxophonist's legacy. In the words of Charles Mingus, "If Charlie Parker was a gunslinger, there'd be a whole lot of dead copycats."