Travels with Phil: in Search of The Groove

. . . with no apologies whatsoever to John Steinbeck's 1962 novel (or his estate) . . .. . . and no, my intentions are not to compare Phil Woods (PW) to JS's poodle, although Phil does have incredibly "dogged" determination to continue his creative processes via new compositions for jazz orchestra and improvising. What follows is just a small sampling of what he'll go through to keep the flame burning fresh and bright . . .

Welcome to the latest installment of Sideman Chronicles. When last we left you, it was summer 1998 and Phil had just finished taking the Phil Woods Big Band (aka PWBB, aka PW & the COTA Festival Orchestra) on a 23-day tour of major European jazz festivals and then six nights at the Blue Note jazz club in NYC. Fast forward to August 2000 . . .

Testosterone Tour 2000 started off innocently enough in Nay Aug Park, Scranton, PA, on Tuesday, August 8. A music festival hosted by the "jazz mayor" Jimmy Connors became an adequately funded first-time run-through of the latest additions to the PWBB repertoire. Thanks to baritone saxophonist Jim Buckley's efforts in booking this concert, Phil could hear his latest creations performed by a pro big band. Jim's musical labors over the decades were validated earlier that evening by his fine small-group performance on tenor sax and his later appearance on bari sax with the PWBB.

Phil had recently expanded his oeuvre with four opuses. First, an arrangement of Benny Carter's People Time featuring the PWBB second tenor saxophonist Lew Del Gatto (more about second tenors later). In addition, three vocal works to give the band yet another dimension, featuring the newest member of the ensemble, vocalist Jerry Harris:

  1. A new composition by PW, Jazz Baby, which musically honors and describes his wife, Jill Goodwin
  2. PW's arrangement of the classic Secret Love
  3. A revision of his arrangement of the classic Blue Gardenia

Piano performer Bruce Barth would be with the ensemble for this trip, subbing temporarily for Bill Charlap, who was last spotted playing with tenor saxophonist Harry Allen. I always enjoy observing the different ways in which master musicians negotiate that demanding seat. Bruce immediately showed why he got the call as he demonstrated remarkable sight-reading, accompanying, and striking melodic improvisations.

The next night, Phil and most of the band left via Newark airport, flying into Zurich, Switzerland. International incidents averted, we then survived the nebulousness of the jet-lag-induced three-hour layover and caught a connecting flight to Oslo, Norway. A gentleman named Rune Wold and his jazz festival associates, who were to be our hosts for two days at the 15th Oslo Jazz Festival, greeted us at the new Oslo airport. These extremely warm and helpful music lovers were always there for us as they turned their volunteerism into professionalism. The next afternoon, the remaining members of the Phil Woods Quintet arrived after performing dance music composed by Phil Woods (Fill the Woods with Light) and trumpeter Brian Lynch (Scrutiny) at NYC's Lincoln Center. Also, trombonist Ed Neumeister arrived from his new home in Vienna, Austria, where he commutes to his jobs as professor of jazz trombone at the University of Music in Graz and as head of the Jazz Composition Department at the Conservatory of Music in Lucerne, Switzerland. He moved from Tarrytown, NY, in August 1999 and was a member of the famed Vanguard Jazz Orchestra in NYC for 18 years. In the 1990s, Ed made dozens upon dozens of dollars coming out to Delaware Water Gap to rehearse and perform with the COTA Festival Orchestra several times, and in 1998 he performed with the PWBB at the Blue Note. He is truly one of the major "bad-boy" (translation: most accomplished yet well behaved) improvising musicians on the planet.

The band was housed at one of the great older-style first-class European hotels: the Grand Hotel. Especially since it rained during most of our stay, I took advantage of the Norwegian sauna twice (home base! 210 degrees!). Our neighbor Dave Liebman would be arriving next week to perform twice. Phil's band played Friday night in the Club Cosmopolite for an enthusiastic crowd that included both daughters of the recently departed Norwegian world-class jazz supporter Randi Hultin. Her house near Oslo was a main stopover for countless jazz musicians for decades, where she would celebrate passion for the jazz life with food, wine, and extended jam sessions. Anyone who was anybody in the jazz world became familiar with Randi, and Phil spent his share of time with her. He dedicated the performance to her memory and we performed his 30-year-old composition with lyrics, Randi. Phil's orchestration contains one of the great sax solis (a part of a piece featuring an interesting harmonization by the entire saxophone section) in all of big-band jazz (as is the sax soli in his Goodbye Mr. Evans). The sax section with Captain Nelson Hill at the helm executed these passages wonderfully. Later, the band played Goodbye Mr. Evans, but Phil announced that tonight's version would be titled Goodbye Randi Hultin. Phil presented Randi's daughters Christina and Vivian with Briana-Lyn Syvarth's 2000 COTA poster signed by the entire band (Rick Chamberlain gave out a few COTA posters everywhere we performed). It was special to witness alto saxophonist Jesse Heckman's solo improvisations in front of his Norwegian wife Torunn, her family and friends. Jesse lived in Oslo for almost two years, and he and Torunn are now living in Boston (in 2001, they moved again, to Jersey City). Speaking of alto players, Nelson Hill's virtuosic solo feature on I Remember Bird was burnin' for chorus upon chorus. The enthusiastic yet respectful audience went absolutely wild at the end of Nelson's public display and Phil pleaded with them not to encourage Nelson. The performance was broadcast on Norwegian National Radio. Since one of the main goals of Phil and his Merry Wanderers is to attempt to locate, execute, and maintain "the groove" (as in everything "clicking" symbiotically for all 18 of us in terms of musical pulse, style, feel, and aesthetic), this performance obtained a rather high "groove rating" of 9.9 out of 10!

Saturday we flew to London's Heathrow Airport so that we could wait over an hour for a bus to pick us up and drive us three hours to our hotel in Cardiff, the capital of Wales. The band was extremely fortunate to have a much-needed shot of estrogen with us: Lew Del Gatto's vibrant, smiling wife Kate. It's nice to have at least one person who doesn't make caustic comments about everything and lends a hand with many travel tasks. I was hoping that Kate could access a trumpet so that she could split the duties of my fourth trumpet part with me. She said that she's never played trumpet, but I indicated that she would still make a significant contribution to the fourth trumpet section with me, but alas she refused ( . . . Dammit!). Lew's great CD Katewalk has just been released (NAXOS Jazz 86058-2), and no, it's not dedicated to Kate Smith. This is incredible music at an even more incredible price.

We finally arrived at the hotel in Cardiff (9½ hours after leaving the hotel in Oslo) and were told to check-in, go to our rooms, and be back in the lobby . . . in 20 minutes!!! As an officially registered "Road-Rat in Training" under the guidance of Phil's Quintet, I am getting better at hitting a hotel, checking the TV for world news on CNN, filling the clean bag-lined waste basket with ice so that I don't have to touch the highly priced/stocked room refrigerator (voila!! Instant Economy Mini Bar!! - thanks, Phil!), and taking a shower . . . all in 12 minutes! In the lobby, PW met Conte Candoli (one of music's all-time great jazz trumpeters, and yes, I am starstruck!) and their embrace lasted seemingly for two minutes. Their initial meeting was on Phil's first major tour in 1956 with the Birdland All Stars for 10 weeks of travel. Perhaps it is the bliss of such unforeseen reunions that helps keep Phil's energy level up there when the going gets tough. (Conte passed on in December 2001. RIP master virtuoso.)

On the back of the bus, Death Tour 2000 continued as we rode over an hour to Brecon, Wales. Four things were visible as we drove through the lovely Welsh countryside: 1. foggy hillsides; 2. sheep; 3. sheep; 4. sheep. As exhausted and pissed off as the band might have been, the ultimate aim remained the music as we arrived, ate sandwiches, sound checked, and hit at Brecon Jazz 2000. Bill Charlap appeared after the sound check, as he was also presenting at this festival. Throughout Phil's career, he has performed for the best and worst bandleaders. We observed Phil's brilliance as a director and his experience as a band "Papa" shone through many times, especially when many variables were seemingly working against the ensemble. His glue held us together quite nicely this evening, thank you, and we opened up with Reet's Sheep . . . err Reet's Neet. Steve Gilmore's improvising has always frightened me and tonight he delivered an especially interesting angular improvisation. Bruce Barth's solos also took us along with him to the world-class creative zone. Bill Goodwin's drumming was a constant reminder of "Swing is not the main thing . . . it's the only thing!"

Ed Neumeister's solo feature of Phil's arrangement of Willow Weep for Me was one of many highlights each night. "Ed and His Talking Trombone"--using a mute and a toilet plunger--is magnificently artistic and entertaining. Tom Hamilton soloed like a wizard on different selections. Phil would just point to him. Where does this magic come from? Another feature, Lew Del Gatto's interpretation of People Time, brought thunderous ovations each night. This leads me to a point about big-band ensemble execution. Here we have a something-else musician like Tom playing the first tenor part and the incredibly accomplished Lew playing the second tenor part. Lew has recorded with pages of people and has been in the NBC Saturday Night Live Band for over fifteen years as saxophonist, arranger, and contractor. Does Lew mind playing second tenor? Of course not, because he doesn't need to prove himself.

In the November/December 1987 issue of Windplayer magazine, Maynard Ferguson discussed why today's younger musicians, being well educated in universities and conservatories, are not as likely to be happy as section players: "They all want to play more [solo and lead parts]. It's almost impossible to find a kid with that 'Boy am I happy just to be here playing third trumpet on this band' attitude." He goes on to express the frustrations of a young third trumpet player or second trombone player yearning to play the lead part and/or solo. MF states, "Perhaps I'm being unfair, but I can't help thinking about the groove [the Count] Basie [Orchestra] hit [especially in the '50s] because of the attitude of his players. Players you can't remember now. Fourth trumpet. Third trombone. Fourth [second] tenor. They're the guys who loved what they did and they made that band. That's missing today." Well, Mr. Ferguson, I see your excellent point, but it's not missing in the PWBB! The section players are integral to the source of any band's characteristic and unique sound/tone quality, and as Phil's section players work in tandem with lead players Nelson Hill (sax), Rick Chamberlain (trombone), and the "voice of the band," Ken Brader III (trumpet), you get the distinct auditory ambiance of PW's wind enclave. Beside the aforementioned Lew, you have Jim Buckley on baritone sax, Jesse Heckman on second alto sax, Kevin Haines on third trombone, Jan Betz (a fine lead trumpeter in his own right) on third trumpet, and yours truly on "split-fourth" trumpet. These skilled artisans have the keen ability to get a lock on their respective lead players, other sections, the current propulsion of the pulse that the rhythm section is "laying down" (think ubiquitous "groove" searching), and the director. This is what makes a band! Jim Daniels (bass trombone) is a triple threat and is in a category by himself as he is a section player, sometimes breaks away with the bari sax and string bass on bass lines, and is a splendidly solid foundation upon which the entire brass section depends so that they may deliver professional-quality intonation above him. Whew!! So ends my tribute to the section player!

All things considered, this gig rung up a groove rating of 9.8. The performance was broadcast on BBC Wales, and upon conclusion, we packed up and waited (for the second time) a half hour for the bus. Where had he gone? Back to Newark? He shall return! . . . and at 10:40 we loaded up, drove through an alley around the building and went 1½ short blocks, getting off the bus at a restaurant. Of course, they weren't ready for us, so we waited outside marveling at dozens of extremely inebriated youngsters out for a stroll. It's doubtful any of them entered the jazz concerts, using the festival as an excuse to fall down every 10 feet. We sat down after 11:00, the food came out at 12:20 a.m., we were outside waiting (again) for the bus by 1:00, and back to the hotel by 2:15. Approaching the hotel, Cardiff was temporary shelter for hundreds upon hundreds of youths out for a night on (under? above?) the town. Piles of garbage everywhere seemed to be the holiday theme and the hotel staff confirmed that we were observing a typical Saturday in Cardiff. If Dylan Thomas were still writing in 2000, perhaps his observations of libated revelers stumbling toward the curbside mounds would have led him to have penned Do not go gentle into that good garbage. And we've always thought that Americans were barbarians! We'll flip you for it! As we settled into the rooms, the highly revered refuse patrol convoyed and scoured the city, filling their trucks. Guess where they dumped the clanking beer bottle-riddled loads? That's right! Behind our hotel! All night! Hope you can fall asleep quick! Wakeup calls were set for 7:15 a.m.

Day 16 . . . err 4 started with breakfast and an 8:30 departure, and miraculously, the town was 95% cleaned up, just in time to attend religious services. We rode over two hours to Birmingham, England, and boarded a jet for Toulouse, France. A recent air transportation trend in economy sections of most flights features several screaming young children. Attempting to capitalize upon the popularity of the movie Titanic, most airlines think we enjoy realistic re-creations of passengers riding in steerage. In the best of times, these wailing banshees set their amplifiers on 11 and don't come up for air for 20 minutes at a time. Tom Hamilton definitely attracted pairs of these cute tykes, one row behind him, one on each ear. Upon landing, the airline crew lined the band up against the wall under the guise of keeping us together through customs. Actually it worked, as security is usually not "too loose," but we circumvented customs and immediately made "Lautrec" outside to the bus.

Now came a two-hour bus ride through southwestern France. The sun was finally shining in our corner of the world for the first time in three days and something seemed to be silently stirring with our group. Gazing at quaint villages and rolling hillsides, we observed sunflower fields and bales of hay similar to scenes that inspired the French Impressionist painters. Is the band's body clock turning over and having an energetic rebirth? Trumpeter Brian Lynch listened to a CD of Maurice Ravel's Impressionistic music while taking in the vistas. Brian, as an artist, not only studies and executes art, he lives it!

Upon arriving in Marciac you could sense the respect for musicians, as this village of approximately 1,000 inhabitants welcomed over 50,000 visitors to their 10-day Jazz in Marciac. The man responsible for our five days of madness, Jordi Suñol, from Barcelona, for whom "sincere concert promoter" is not an oxymoron, warmly welcomed us. Looking around the village with its hundreds of vendors, soaking up the sunshine, being pampered with a typically classic French meal, all I could think was From here on in, boys, it's time to start living in the moment!

The evening's concert would start with Bud Shank & the West Coast Legends (WCL), including Conte Candoli and our Hawley, PA, neighbor Bill Mays on piano. Bill spent many years on the West Coast jazz scene. The WCL played at the same three festivals as the PWBB but on shuffled days or times. As the sun set beyond the Pyrenees Mountains, a crowd of 5,000 gathered in the festival tent. Bud and Co. started the concert, showing why the "legends" billing was more than appropriate, and this crowd was there to absorb some art! French national television and radio was broadcasting this concert, and backstage the PWBB continued its Phoenix-like ascension. Lead trumpet player Ken Brader III had not been seen for a couple of hours and he didn't attend dinner...uh-oh! KBIII is really preparing for this one. Actually, we heard him warming up and aligning trumpetisms in the distance. What?! KBIII missing dinner? He's not going to take any prisoners tonight!

During the intermission, Jim and Rick set up the stage, all the while arguing with the French stage crew about how Phil wanted his band set up. The WCL attended a dessert and champagne reception. The PWBB took their positions on stage. Okay everybody, strap on in!! Phil kicked off Reet's and it was working. Phil greeted the audience with a few sentences in French and we continued the set with a high energy level. The WCL came onto the stage wings and listened for well over a half hour. During Banja Luka, Conte got his band mates' attention as Brian stepped up to the mic and delivered a complete compendium of the history of jazz trumpet improvisatory styles from 1945 to the present . . . all in two minutes and 35 seconds! Audience reaction was stifling, and soon afterward, the alto tribunal of Nelson, Jesse, and Phil laid down the law in Repetition. The music continued to be executed in an ascending transcendental state, but fulfillment seemed to be slightly out of reach. But wait a minute . . . we're now to the point of the set where Jerry Harris comes out to sing. Yes. YES! Jerry sings Jazz Baby and demonstrates his wonderful ability to go out into the audience . . . without ever leaving the bandstand! We're finally a band, all of us on the stage, synchronizing. Next is Secret Love, and as Jerry hits the bridge of the tune " . . . Now! I shout it from the highest hill! . . . " it happens! It had all built up over the days to this point, 18 as one! Hey Phil! PW! PWW! Dr. Wu! Dr. Philip Wells Woods! Philippe DuBois! There it is! That's it! We found the groove! WE FOUND THE GROOVE!!! Groove rating 10.0!! GGGOOOAAALLL!!!

The tune ends, Phil launches right into his theme, How's Your Mama?, introduces each member of the band to the accompaniment of the Rhythmaires, and takes it home. The audience is in ecstasy! Encore!! The PWBB returns to the stage, PW grabs Tom Hamilton's clarinet, and starts his arrangement of Benny Carter's Just a Mood, featuring Rick's tip of the hat to the jazz trombone tradition and KBIII's solo, which soars into French airspace. Done. Off the stage again. Thunderous applause for Phil's efforts continues for several minutes. Phil won't possibly offer a second encore . . . wait . . . oh yes he does, because he really wants to and this throng of thousands has earned it as much as Phil has earned the ovations. Jerry proceeds to sing Blue Gardenia, and upon conclusion the audience and the PWBB are totally exhausted. Talk about ending on a high note . . .

We packed up and were each individually visited and formally presented with our own wooden box that held two bottles of wine vinted locally by the famous Côtes de Saint-Mont wine masters. What a grand gesture! Now, how am I going to get this home? How about my trumpet case? Oh no! It doesn't fit! If only I didn't have this damn trumpet . . .

We got on the bus and Phil said, "You guys really scored some points tonight!" He then expressed his optimism for future music making. The bus left the site after 1:00 a.m. and arrived at the hotel in Toulouse after 3:00 a.m. Around 4:00 a.m., a couple of small pockets of activity were to be found in various parts of the building.

The final day, the bus loaded at 1:30 p.m. and we checked in for a flight from Toulouse to Brussels. While waiting in line, I spoke to Conte for 20 minutes about trumpet section techniques, and Jim took a photo of us arm-in-arm. I will never wash that arm again. I can die now! Conte brought up that he loves getting The Note newsletter from the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection at East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania and he conveyed thanks to Dr. Larry Fisher and Bob Bush for making it available.

We took off from Brussels, and as my mind wandered throughout the nine-hour flight, I said to myself, "Man! This is one long flight! I wonder where the gig is tonight." I checked my boarding pass/destination card and it indicated Newark, NJ. Maybe we're playing in Hoboken? Kearney? Elizabeth? Linden? Perth Amboy? Nutley?

After landing, six of us were met by the van from Vista Parking at HoJos hotel, four of us got my Regal, and rode back to northeastern Pennsylvania. Entering the 19th hour of travel, I dropped the other three and drove the final few miles (If It's Tuesday, This Must Be Bartonsville). Rehearsals for our high school student summer jazz ensemble, the COTA Cats, start in a matter of hours . . . Hi students! Welcome to the 20th edition of the COTA Cats! We have many things to learn together about music, loyalty, integrity, and honor, and boy, do I have some stories to tell you! . . .

The honor was all ours, Phil . . .

Patrick C. Dorian
Associate Professor of Music
East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania
(Apprentice Road-Rat)

 
 

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