Phil Woods, Benny Carter, and the Alto Brotherhood

December 31, 2015

by Steve Futterman

mymanBy the time of his death at the age of eighty-three in September of 2015, the alto saxophonist Phil Woods had made scores of recordings, uniting with musical figures as distinct as Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Thelonious Monk, and Billy Joel. An intrepid bandleader ever on the lookout for promising younger players, Woods helped introduce such significant stylists as Jim McNeely, Bill Goodwin, Tom Harrell, and Bill Charlap. A saxophonist of Olympian technique, Woods had bebop coursing through his veins; concurrently, his ears were also trained to detect, and at least consider, further developments in the evolution of jazz.

Still, one of his most treasurable albums – My Man Benny/My Man Phil (1990) – found Woods mixing it up with a fellow alto saxophonist twenty-four years his senior, a revered figure already well respected by the dawn of the Swing Era – Benny Carter. The two had collaborated before. In 1961, Woods was part of a dizzyingly formidable saxophone section that included Coleman Hawkins, Charlie Rouse, and Benny Carter himself on Carter’s Further Definitions, one of the weightiest albums from a period chockablock with recorded jazz masterpieces. In its harmonious embrace of past and present, Further Definitions is quite special, and in its way, a harbinger of My Man Benny/My Man Phil. Blending players from the Swing Era (Hawkins, Carter, the guitarist John Collins, and the drummer Jo Jones) with younger, bebop-and-beyond stylists (Woods, Rouse, the pianist Dick Katz, and the bassist Jimmy Garrison – himself a noted associate of Ornette Coleman and John Coltrane) and letting them loose on charts that revisited classics that the leader had originally brought to life in 1937, Carter suggested that creative and vital musicians can, and should, always look beyond the supposed limits of stylistic boundaries.

Woods, like everyone else on that magnificent project, plays his tail off. And, judging from the results of the studio reunion with Carter almost thirty years later, Woods was still basking in the glow of the earlier recording. On its surface, My Man Benny/My Man Phil is a modest masterwork. Carter, one of the most formidable of jazz composers and arrangers, leans mainly on a few older, less heralded tunes from his vaunted repertoire and shies away from intricate charts. Woods contributes two fine tunes including a sparkling tribute, “My Man Benny.” Accompanied by a simpatico rhythm section, including the bassist George Mraz, the drummer Kenny Washington and the pianist Chris Neville,
the two alto icons aim for common ground. That they find it, and in doing so proceed to produce supernal music together, is testament to their respective artistry and mutual regard.

What makes it all so rewarding is that each man remains true to himself. Woods, at the peak of his powers and the more torrentially fluent of the two players, doesn’t turn off the tap to accommodate Carter’s languorous style; Carter, for his part, forms his exquisite phrases with elegance, balance, and melodic intensity ever in mind, his age (he was eighty-two at the time of the session) belied by his imagination, unflagging energy and lilting tone. Stylistic divisions evaporate under the influence of obvious respect and affection. Two takes of Carter’s simple and effecting blues, “Just A Mood,” are nothing less than a master class in the art of relaxed yet pointed alto playing. Similar pleasures and a few surprises abound: Woods pulls out his clarinet and Carter his trumpet to grand effect on the slow New Orleans-styled “We Were In Love”; Carter takes another rare and typically comely late period trumpet solo on his fetching ballad “People Time”; both saxophonists have fun romping on the warhorse, “I’m Just Wild about Harry.”

Woods was a capacious artist whose commanding talents could all but consume a listener, yet in sharing the spotlight with an elder giant he asserted the powerful continuum that truly allows jazz to endure.

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