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Iconic jazz alto saxophonist Phil Woods performs at the Manchester Craftsmen's Guild and announces his retirement.

Concert review: Saxophonist Phil Woods ends playing career on a high note

By Rick Nowlin / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Friday evening at the Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild promised to be historic, with alto saxophonist and NEA Jazz Master Phil Woods reprising the classic album “Charlie Parker With Strings,” backed by a local trio and members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Well, it was indeed historic but for an unforseen reason: Before his last number, Mr. Woods, best known to the casual music listener as the soloist on Billy Joel’s “Just the Way You Are,” announced that it would be his last number. Ever.

The 83-year-old Mr. Woods, who uses oxygen — at the beginning he jokingly referred to his tank as “my amplifier” and later noted he has emphysema —  said that he was retiring from the stage due to health reasons. That being the case, he went out with a bang, and if he was having any trouble breathing it surely didn’t show in the performance, which was so solid throughout that I had some trouble picking out highlights.

From the opening “Just Friends,” Mr. Woods was in firm command of the horn, combining tone with fluidity in a situation that necessarily had to be tight. The tunes did a lot of modulating, which likely was a bit of a challenge because the PSO people were reading music. Or perhaps not.

Over his career Mr. Woods has often worked with a second horn player, and this time it was trumpeter Jamie Moore, who performed several selections from albums recorded by Clifford Brown and Donald Byrd. Mr. Moore’s tone was similarly clear and focused, especially on “Stardust.” Probably the most stretched-out tune was Neil Hefti’s “Repetition,” during which the two horn players also allowed pianist Alton Merrell, and drummer Tom Wendt their chances to shine.

Mr. Woods made the retirement announcement, including sharing part of his history, just before he and Mr. Moore went into the closer, Gerry Mulligan’s “Rocker,” during which Mr. Woods threw in a phrase from “Let’s Fall in Love” and bassist Paul Thompson soloing in the upper register.

If I had a criticism of the show it was that at times the strings at times cut through the mix too much, slightly overpowering the rest of the ensemble.

At the end of the evening, after he was wheeled out to a standing ovation, and most of the other musicians had left the stage, Mr. Woods’ sax remained there on a stand, perhaps similar to a wrestler leaving his shoes in the ring after his last bout.

If he’s true to his word, no one will ever again hear that horn.

Rick Nowlin: rnowlin@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3871.




 
 


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