The great saxophonist Phil Woods dies, aged 83

by Matt Micucci

The great alto saxophonist, clarinetist, bandleader and composer Phil Woods died on Sept. 29 in East Stroudsburg, Pa. He was 83 years old, and the cause of death was a complication of emphisema.

Phil Woods was revered in jazz circles for his bright, clean sound and his sterling technique. He was born in Springfield, Massachussets and studied at the Manhattan School of Music and at the Juilliard School. There, he was particularly inspired by his teacher – the jazz pianist and composer Lennie Tristano, and particularly by his interests in contrapuntal interaction of instruments, harmonic flexibility, and rhythmic complexity.

He quickly became a much sought after alto saxophonist for his exceptional, graceful and commanding ability to read sheet music just as well as he could improvise solos. He recorded with the composer-arrangers Oliver Nelson, Michel Legrand and George Russell, and even helped trumpeter Clark Terry establish his Big Bad Band.

Despite his defining use of bebop’s rigorous, complex and brisk style, Woods was just as interested in experimentation. In 1968, for instance, he moved to France. The move led him to an exploration of avant-garde jazz and the establishment of the group European Rhythm Machine. Further on, he would even attempt to embrace electronic music.

He also made numerous contributions to pop music. On the recommendation of the producer Phil Ramone, an old classmate at the Juilliard School, Mr. Woods was featured on Mr. Simon’s 1975 album, “Still Crazy After All These Years,” playing a quicksilver bebop cadenza on the song “Have a Good Time.” And in 1977 Mr. Woods was prominently featured on Mr. Joel’s ballad “Just the Way You Are,” which became a Top 10 hit and won two Grammy Awards.

Throughout his career, he received many accolades. He won four Grammy Awards, beginning in 1975 with an orchestral album he made with Michel Legrand, Images in 1975. In 2007, he was named a National Endowment for the Arts Jazz Master and received a Living Jazz Legend Award from the Kennedy Center.

Woods was regarded as one of the leaders of the generation that followed in Charlie Parker’s footsteps, and was even known as the New Bird. The association with Parker was solidified when he married his widow, Chan, in 1957 – a marriage that ended in divorce. His final concert earlier this month in Pittsburgh was a tribute to the album “Charlie Parker With Strings”.

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