Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Paul Desmond: Neoclassicism in Jazz [Part 1]



OUP Material, Copyright Line, and Acknowledgement
IP Number
THE IMPERFECT ART by Giola (1988) 2800w from "IV: Neoclassicism in Art" pp.81-91
 © 1998 by Ted Gioia  By permission of Oxford University Press, Inc.

6000150

Introduction

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

There are lot’s of ways to learn about Jazz for as the noted Jazz author Doug Ramsey has advised in Jazz Matters: Reflections on the Music and Some of Its Makers [Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1989, p. 6]:

"You don't need a degree in musicology to understand the language of jazz. ... Jazz is based on the common language of music understood around the world. The listener, whether musician or non-musician, can learn the idioms and vernacular of the language. It is simply a matter of absorption through exposure. My only caveat is this: in the learning process, don't spend your time listening to imitators or second-raters."

Doug’s caveat holds true as well for Jazz writers: only read the best.

Certainly, by any standard of judgment, three of the best authors about Jazz are Doug, Gene Lees and Ted Gioia.

I would think that as the youngest member of this distinguished triumvirate, Ted might be flattered to share the following, paraphrased words of praise which Gene articulated about Doug’s writing in his Foreword to Doug’s Jazz Matters:

“A decent and  respectful curiosity fills Doug Ramsey’s writing. When he expresses reservations about someone’s work, he does so gently and reluctantly.

… And he praises beautifully. This is the hardest thing to do in criticism. Any writer can make himself look clever by excoriation, which calls for witty analogies and comparisons, but a rare and sensitive gift goes into the writing of sensitive praise.

And Doug has the gift of imagery, rather like that of Whitney Balliett, to give impressions of music through words.

Doug writes for the ear, he has a habit of writing only what reads well aloud….

‘The primary responsibility in writing about anything is to help people understand,’ Doug said.

That, above all, is what Doug Ramsey does.”

And that is also what Ted Gioia does, he informs the reader. Whether he is writing about one style or school of Jazz such as West Coast Jazz, or whether his discourse is about the sweeping panorama of the history of Jazz itself, Ted gives his readers knowledge and insights into how to better understand and appreciate Jazz.

Yet, Ted is no stodgy academician, but rather, an interesting storyteller who makes reading about Jazz fun and enjoyable.

His writing also enriches our listening experience by introducing fresh and different perspectives about the music for as he states in the Acknowledgements to The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture: [click on book title for order information]

“… mine is a decidedly ‘thoughtful’ … approach to Jazz.

Doug and Ted’s musings about Jazz also intersect at another point along its spectrum of personalities. Each has offered a treatment on the subject of alto saxophonist Paul Desmond [although in Doug’s case, it is more like a Magnus Opus!].

In The Imperfect Art: Reflections on Jazz and Modern Culture, Ted’s unique views on Paul are characterized as part of what he refers to as Neoclassicism in Jazz [pp. 81 -91].

Ted and the kind folks at Oxford University Press have graciously granted JazzProfiles copyright permission to replicate his description of what this categorization entails and why Paul’s style of playing fits so neatly into it.

As part of an ongoing series, the editorial staff plans to offer future features on other artists who approach Jazz in a “Neoclassicist” manner including John Lewis, Ahmad Jamal and Miles Davis.

So as not to confuse the reader, before describing Neoclassicism, the excerpt from Ted’s work which follows initially describes Romanticism in Jazz as a basis for contrasting these two radically different approaches to the music.

THE IMPERFECT ART, pp. 81-91, © 1998 by Ted Gioia  By permission of Oxford University Press, Inc. Copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“Drawing parallels between stages in jazz’s development and periods in the evolution of other arts is, at best, a questionable endeavor. Yet the pronounced obsession with individual art­ists which has characterized the reactions of jazz fans, critics, and even musicians at least since the time of Louis Arm­strong—reaching its peak with the figure of John Coltrane— can perhaps be best understood as the outgrowth of a tempera­ment which is essentially "romantic" in nature.

Romanticism, with its idealization of the expressive artist, created a new aesthetic vocabulary in the late eighteenth and nineteenth century—one that fixated on the act of artistic pro­duction; one that glorified the passing moment of artistic in­spiration as a secular epiphany; one in which the artist often became more important than what he created. In many in­stances the artist's life actually became, in his eyes and in the eyes of others, itself a work of art. With Byron, Wordsworth, Keats, Goethe, Wagner, and many of their contemporaries, biography and aesthetics begin to coalesce. The term "roman­ticism" has become worn with use, and, as more than one critic has advocated, much might be gained by discarding it entirely. Yet, as William Thrall has noted, "viewed in philo­sophical terms, romanticism does have a fairly definite mean­ing.”10 [William Thall, A Handbook to Literature, New York: Odyssey Press, 1960, p. 431] It designates a view of the world "which tends to see the individual at the very center of all life and all experience, and it places him, therefore, at the center of art." This aes­thetic sensibility was often seen as having a special affinity with the musical arts, As M. H. Abrams has noted, the Ger­man critics in particular saw " music as the apex and norm of the pure and non-representative expression of spirit and feeling against which to measure the relative expressiveness of all other art forms . . .

[I]nquiry into the neo-representative character of music joined with many collateral influences to strain and shatter the frame of neo-classic theory, and to reorient all critical discussion toward the new magnetic north of the expressive and creative artist.11 [M.H. Abrams, The Mirror and The Lamp: Romantic Theory and the Critical Tradition, New York: Oxford University Press, 1953, p. 94]

The inherent romanticist elements in music are realized with particular force in jazz. In no other area of creative en­deavor is there so little distance between the artist and his work of art. In the spontaneous act of improvisation, the art­ist has no opportunity to give his music a separate existence, to revise it, to reconsider it, to mull over it. The notion of the autonomous work of art—so fashionable in recent intellectual circles—has no place in jazz. Jazz music lives and dies in the moment of performance, and in that moment the musician is his music. His improvisation is the purest expression possible of the artist's emotions and feelings, and it is a purity which is only heightened by the absence of the spoken word. The German romanticist Novalis, arguing for the primacy of the musical arts, wrote towards the close of the eighteenth cen­tury: "The musician takes the essence of his art out of him­self—and not the slightest suspicion of imitation can befall him."12 [Cited in ibid., 93]
With his a cappella introduction to the West End Blues, Louis Armstrong ushered in a period of romanticism in jazz which has become, if anything, more pronounced with the passage of time. The increasingly individualistic nature of the music, the obsessive reactions of the jazz world to figures such as Parker or Coltrane, the almost complete breakdown of bar­riers between the artist and his work of art—all these legacies of Armstrong are the clear signs of an aesthetic sensibility which is essentially romanticist in character.

The benefits of such a musical environment are unmistak­able. Jazz, as a community of creative individuals, fosters a pluralism which is healthy for the art form as a whole. It lacks the embedded institutions of the other arts, yet a stronger em­phasis on group norms, exercised perhaps through academia or other mechanisms of standardization, would probably have stifled some of jazz's greatest talents. One could not imagine a Charles Mingus or a Thelonious Monk thriving in an environment n which artistic success depended on access to fel­lowships, government grants, academic appointments, and the like.

The benefits of jazz's pluralism, however, have not been achieved without a price. The attendant fragmentation of the jazz community has led to a lack of cohesion among practi­tioners, an absence of institutions for preserving and passing on the music's traditions, and, perhaps worst of all, a steady erosion of generally accepted critical standards which define what is good and bad in the music. Without the latter, musi­cians—as well as listeners and critics—may find their isolation only growing. The lack of common standards and a common musical vocabulary has exacerbated the collapse of the jazz world into countless schools and tendencies, each unable to communicate with those outside of its own small world.

Jazz has become, in effect, a music of perpetual romanti­cism. The jazz world has always exhibited a manic quality in which the music's inherent vitality threatened to run away with itself. Today this strain is more dominant than ever be­fore. By contrast, the powerful broadening and unifying in­fluence of an Armstrong, an Ellington, a Parker is now ap­parently a thing of the past.

V

Within this pervasive aesthetic of emotional excess, however, a handful of musicians have tried to temper the music's natu­ral impulse towards self-indulgence. They have created music of restraint, of control, of economy. These are the neoclassicists of jazz. Like neoclassical artists in other arts, they attempt to pare away the excesses of previous generations to reveal an art that is pristine and timeless. Their paradigm is the sculp­tor, whose work emerges from sharply cut and precisely de­fined lines, and whose warmth of expression is tempered by the cool, distant, and unforgiving medium with which he works. The neoclassicist recognizes that self-restraint is the essence of artistic style. A style which includes everything ceases to be a style—it has become an encyclopedia of tech­niques. The artist who embraces all of these techniques has, by the same token, reduced himself to a mere craftsman. Art begins only when some techniques are favored, others dis­carded.

Jazz, for these artists, is not just a music of possibilities, but rather a music of constrained possibilities. The temptation to­wards all-inclusiveness may have ruined more talent than all of the more publicized vices of the musician's life. Certainly when artistic norms collapse—as in our own day—the great art­ist must impose constraints upon himself. He must reject on his own what others are content to let go by.

Neoclassicism in jazz is not restricted to a specific time pe­riod or geographical area. Artists as different as Lester Young, Wes Montgomery, Bill Evans, Count Basic, Stan Getz, John Lewis, Miles Davis, and Paul Desmond can be included in its ranks, although under almost any circumstances the neo­classicist is part of a minority that distances itself from the more frenetic tradition of romanticism which permeates jazz. Thus the neoclassicist may appear to be perpetually out of fashion, a lone voice in the jazz world.

Jazz, in the hands of a neoclassicist, is a music of balance, of care, of restraint. With an unabashed lyricism and a subtle sense of formal structure, the neoclassicist displays his affinity for jazz's rich tradition of vocal music. The most successful collaborations of jazz singers and instrumentalists—the Billie Holiday/Lester Young recordings come immediately to mind-have more often than not been a part of this neoclassical heritage.

Yet the neoclassicist can often be distinguished not so much by his positive virtues as by what he excludes. Some pundit once remarked that the most telling thing about Jane Austen was that she never mentioned the French Revolution in her writings. A similar perspective, it seems, could be applied fruitfully to the study of musicians. Indeed one of the most striking characteristics of recent jazz in the romantic tradition is its all-inclusiveness. It attempts to encompass the whole musical world, from Third World folk music to the twelve-tone row. Neoclassicism, in contrast, is a music of exclusion, of omission.

VI

In the case of saxophonist Paul Desmond, one never needed to look far to find these omissions. The bebop clichés, the ob­session with playing fast, the memorized licks which char­acterized jazz saxophone playing in the post-Charlie Parker era—all of these were noticeably absent in Desmond's music. As Dave Brubeck once mentioned, with no slight intended: "Paul's big contribution is going to be that he didn't copy Charlie Parker."13 [Downbeat, Sept. 15, 1960, p. 17]

A comparison between Desmond and his contemporary Charlie Parker is illuminating. Parker, perhaps the most bril­liant improviser in the history of jazz, was at his best when the tempo was fast and the chord structure was complex: his virtuosity delighted in musical obstacle courses such as "Ko-Ko" or "The Hymn." Desmond, in contrast, seldom played at very fast tempos, and when he did one sensed that it was done un­willingly. Not that his technique was not equal to the task; rather it was Desmond's overriding concern with creating a melodic and thematically organized improvisation that led him to eschew the facile glibness of many of the beboppers. Unlike the less talented descendants of Parker who followed a credo of "let your fingers do the walking," Desmond played a thinking man's jazz with solos that often made punning reference to other compositions and improvisations. On an early recording of "You Go to My Head” for example, Des­mond inserts a quote from a Charlie Parker blues in the midst of a most un-Parker-like passage. In other contexts he would incorporate long extracts from Chet Baker or Gerry Mulligan solos into his own improvisations.

Desmond was born less euphoniously as Paul Emil Breitenfeld on November 15, 1924, in San Francisco. His father was once an organist for silent movies and later an arranger. Paul began studying clarinet in 1936 while at San Francisco Poly­technic High School, and continued with it until 1943 when he switched to the alto saxophone. That same year he went into the Army and spent the next three years in San Fran­cisco as part of the 253rd AGF band. "It was a great way to spend the war," Desmond later remarked. "We expected to get shipped out every month, but it never happened. Some­where in Washington our file must still be on the floor under a desk somewhere."14 [Ibid.] After leaving the Army, Desmond played briefly with the bands of Jack Fina and Alvino Rey before joining forces with Dave Brubeck in 1951, a collaboration that would continue for over a quarter of a century.

At some point during this period, Desmond discarded the name Breitenfeld for his more manageable stage name. He claimed that he came upon the name Desmond while paging through a phone book. The remark is appropriate: for an im­provising artist such as Desmond, the spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment decision is the basis of all he does. And Des­mond, more than most, let the philosophy of improvisation govern much of his life outside of music. His casual attitude went beyond the choice of a name. At its worst it encouraged a pronounced habit of procrastination, and Desmond was a procrastinator of almost legendary proportions. For years he spoke of writing a book about his experiences with the Dave Brubeck Quartet. Only the title (How Many of You Are There in the Quartet? — according to Desmond, a favorite question of stewardesses) and one very funny chapter ever emerged.15 [It appeared in Punch on Jan. 10, 1973] Among his other intended projects was an album in which he planned to play each song in the style of a different alto player.

Perhaps the latter idea was only offered as a joke. With Desmond one could never tell. He once told an interviewer that he wanted his alto to sound like a very dry martini; whether his music attained this lofty goal is open to discus­sion, but of the dryness of his humor there can be no dispute. The humor figured prominently in his music—a rarity in mod­ern jazz, where the artists' self-conscious seriousness and the concert hall atmosphere of even nightclub performances casts a sombre aura over most of the music. As his close friend, jazz critic Nat Hentoff wrote:

At times Paul was the wittiest of improvisers. His ear was extraordinarily quick and true, his mind moved with eerie swiftness. He could take a phrase that someone had played earlier or a musical reference that a friend in the audience would understand and insert it into his solo. He'd build on that phrase until he had turned it inside out and seven other ways. Usually this kind of quoting is trickery, but Paul made it cohere. In his music, as in his life, the absurd cohabited with the familiar.16
[Nat Hentoff, Village Voice, Aug. 22, 1977]

For much of his twenty-six-year career, Desmond found his musical skills overshadowed by the work of his longtime friend and collaborator Dave Brubeck. Brubeck, who studied with Darius Milhaud in the late 19405, was a pioneer in the syn­thesis of jazz and classical music—his piano work featured dense harmonies, a studied sense of rhythm, and the use of elements seemingly alien to jazz such as the twelve-tone row and odd time signatures. Yet Desmond was the unsung hero of the Brubeck Quartet; as much as the group's leader, Desmond was instrumental in shaping the ensemble's distinctive sound. His lyrical tone was immediately identifiable, and his ingenious compositions (most notably the group's biggest hit "Take Five") were an important part of the band's repertoire. Although not a student of Milhaud's, Desmond was involved with Brubeck's experimental work from the start. His affin­ity for classical music was also revealed in other ways—most markedly in his intonation, which was remarkably pure, es­pecially when contrasted with the "dirtier" sound favored by many of his contemporaries.

In the midst of a period in which cool jazz and West Coast jazz were increasingly the scorn of jazz critics, Desmond em­braced both with a vengeance. Desmond was well aware of what passed as fashionable in jazz circles; commenting on Bud Shank, a fellow Californian (although one transplanted from Ohio), Desmond said: "I sympathize with him because I have the same problem in my occupation, which is the problem of one who is sort of raised in the atmosphere of cool jazz trying to sound hostile enough to be currently accept­able.” 17 [Downbeat, Oct. 16, 1958, p. 43] In another interview he elaborated: "The things I'm after musically are clarity, emotional communication on a not-too-obvious level, form in a chorus that doesn't hit you over the head but is there if you look for it, humor, and construc­tion that sounds logical in an unexpected way. That and a good dependable high F-sharp and I'll be happy."18 [Downbeat, Sept. 15, 1960, p. 37]

The virtues Desmond enumerated are easy enough to list, but maddeningly difficult to attain. Desmond's dissatisfaction with his own playing frequently came to light in many of the interviews he gave over the years. As Lee Konitz, a contem­porary who shares many similarities with Desmond, com­mented: "I feel that Paul has experienced greatness, and once this feeling of playing what you really hear has been felt by a player, it's difficult to settle for less than this."19 [Ibid., p. 16]

One senses that towards the end of his life Desmond came closer than ever to realizing this goal. His last recordings re­veal an artist who is at peace with himself and who knows with a dogged assurance what it is he wants to express. The ravages of lung cancer may have lessened his stamina and shorted his phrases, but if anything this led Desmond to be even more refined and thoughtful in his playing.

The sardonic humor, however, remained. One wonders what to make of the cover of Live, the last album he saw released. Desmond is pictured seated alone in a club at closing time—the chairs are stacked on the tables, and Desmond is packed to go with a suitcase, or perhaps his saxophone case, at his side. The artist is smoking a cigarette, although even then he must have known he had only a short time before lung cancer would take its final toll. Another detail: if one looks closely, one notices little skulls and crossbones on Desmond's suspenders. These details, combined with the album's ironic title and Desmond's grim smile, are powerfully unnerving. The music inside, however, is every bit as beautiful as the album's cover is morbid. His solo on "Wave" could be a text­book example of solo construction, each chorus outdoing the previous one in inventiveness and incisiveness. Elsewhere, on his own composition "Wendy" or in his closing chorus on "Manha de Carnival" Desmond plays as well as at any point in his career. This is the music of a master.

The end was approaching fast. His last appearance in a re­cording studio was for friend Chet Baker's debut album with the Horizon label. He had been slated to play on the entire album, but had the stamina to record just one track before begging leave to go home and rest. Although he had rarely played in the preceding months, his tone was as pure as ever and his short haunting solo is as fitting a closing statement as any artist could wish to make.


His were the legacies of a man immersed in music. Des­mond's piano, left to Bradley Cunningham, now graces Bradley's in New York, and has acquired a reputation as one of the finest nightclub pianos in jazz. His alto was left to Brubeck's son Michael, with whom he shared a special closeness. Yet these pale beside his legacy to jazz fans through his many records and a few—too few—short writings. Desmond, a West Coast musician at a time when that was virtually synonymous with being unfashionable, had his ashes scattered over Big Sur country near his birthplace in San Francisco.”

Monday, October 30, 2017

“Fine As [Phineas] Can Be”: Phineas Newborn, Jr.


“This is the greatest thing that ever happened to Jazz – the greatest pianist playing today.  In every respect, he’s tremendous. He is just beautiful. A wonderful Jazz musician,”
- Jazz pianist, Gene Harris

“Technically, he was sometimes claimed to run a close second to Art Tatum. In reality, Newborn was a more effective player at slower tempos and with fewer notes; but he could be dazzling when he chose,…. A sensitive and troubled soul, even the lightest of his performances point to hidden depths of emotion.”
- Richard Cook and Brian Morton, The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD, 6th Ed.

“I hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”
- Leonard Feather

© -Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

Legendary bassist Ray Brown, along with Les Koenig of Contemporary Records and Norman Granz at Pablo Records, were largely responsible for insuring that one of the greatest Jazz pianists of all-time – Phineas Newborn, Jr. [1931-1989] - didn’t slip into total obscurity following his initial acclaim.

Although Phineas was not a celebrity, he was highly regarded by knowledgeable Jazz fans, especially in the 1950's and 60's. ''In his prime, he was one of the three greatest jazz pianists of all time, right up there with Bud Powell and Art Tatum,'' said the late Leonard Feather, who for many years served as a Jazz critic for Downbeat magazine and The Los Angeles Times.

There was a time when Phineas looked set for stardom, but mental problems forced him to return to Memphis in the '60s, where he spent his remaining years struggling against the alcohol and drug problems that exacerbated an already fragile emotional state.

Whenever Phineas [who prefers to pronounce his name - “Fine as, ” with the accent of the first syllable, hence the title of Ray’s tribute tune] could pull himself together, Ray Brown brought him into the studio and recorded him in a trio setting along with Ray on bass and such drummers as Jimmy Smith or Elvin Jones on drums.

I got to know Phineas a little during the early 1960s when he played one of the week nights at The Manne Hole, drummer Shelly Manne’s venerable club in Hollywood. He usually worked with bassist Jimmy Bond and drummer Milt Turner, but drummer Frank Butler often performed with him, as well.

One night he told me “his [my] Count Basie story.  It seems that Bill Basie was a friend of his Dad, a drummer who led a Rhythm and Blues band on Memphis’ famous Beale Street during the late 1930s.  Basie nicknamed Phineas, Jr. “Bright Eyes” because ‘as a boy his eyes would light-up as soon as he heard the music!’”

It was staggering to try and take-in all that Phineas had to offer. His technique was phenomenal and he tossed off so many ideas while improvising that if you stopped concentrating even for a second you were lost.  Listening to him in such an informal and personal setting was an exhilarating experience. Sadly, it was often not much of a shared experience as he hardly drew an audience.

The legendary Jazz pianist George Shearing once said that the “trick” to this music is getting it from the head and into the hands. Based on my first-hand observation of Phineas, I had the feeling that he had invented the “trick!”

With his technique, harmonic mastery, rhythmic displacement, and brilliant tone, Phineas Newborn, Jr. was nothing short of a Jazz piano phenomena.


But prodigious technique is frequently more of a curse than a blessing in Jazz circles and is often heavily criticized.

As the late Jazz writer, Leonard Feather, pointed out in his liner notes to Phineas Newborn, Jr.: A World of Piano [Contemporary LP S-7600; OJCCD 175-2]:

“There has always been a tendency among music experts, and by no means only in jazz, to harbor misgivings about technical perfection. The automatic-reflex reaction is: yes, all the notes are there and all the fingers are flying, but what is he really saying? How about the emotional communication?

Art Tatum at the apex of his creative powers suffered this kind of treatment at the hands of a not inconsiderable pro­portion of the critics. Buddy De Franco, of course, has been a consistent victim. Phineas has been in similar trouble, and not because of any lack in his ability to transmit emotion but possibly, I suspect, because of the listeners' reluctance or in­ability to receive it. Nat Hentoff, in the notes for Maggie's Back in Town, pointed out that Phineas has "harnessed his prodigious technique during the past couple of years into more emotionally meaningful directions!" True, though conservative; I would lengthen the harness to four or five years. During that time, too, the technique has taken on even more astonish­ing means to accomplish even more incredible ends — witness one ploy that is uniquely remarkable: the ad lib use of galvanic lines played by both hands two octaves apart. Today, bearing in mind that Bernard Peiffer is French and Oscar Peterson Canadian, it would not be extravagant to claim that Phineas has no equal among American jazz pianists, from any standpoint, technical or esthetic. He is a moving, swinging, pianistically perfect gas.”

George Wein, the impresario who founded the Newport Jazz Festival, wrote these thoughts about Phineas and his music in 1956 as the liner notes to Phineas’ first album for Atlantic Records Here is Phineas [#1235; reissued on CD as Koch 8505].

For years now I've listened to people scream at me about unknown pianists they have discovered. "He’s greater than Bud . "He cuts Oscar . "He leaves Tatum standing still". As many times as I have heard these cries, that is how often I have been disappointed. In­variably, these unknowns are, at their best, simply minor talents, and, at their worst, pale copies of great pianists.

About a year ago I began to hear stories about a fan­tastic pianist in Memphis, Tenn. with the almost quaint sounding name of Phineas Newborn. Jr. Men I re­spected, such as John Hammond, Willard Alexander and, of course. Count Basie, among many others, insisted that I must hear this guy. Due to my previous sad experiences, I could not get excited. However, when I got a chance to really hear Phineas in Storyville [a nightclub in Boston which Wein owned], for the first time I was not disappointed. The unknown had lived up to his press notices.

Phineas Newborn, Jr. was born December 14. 1932 in Memphis. Tenn. I believe this makes him all of 23 years old at the recording of this album. In all my years of listening to music I have never encountered a music­ian of such tender years who had such a fantastic com­mand of his instrument. Perhaps my reaction to Phineas can be traced to my personal concern with the piano. If this was my only reason for liking him, then I say it would be sufficient, for to my knowledge the only pianist who has as great, or greater command of the piano is Art Tatum.


Phineas is a two handed pianist, as opposed to the tendency of modern pianists to dwell on the single finger, right hand style. The only time he can be ac­cused of being a one-handed pianist is when he puts his right hand in his pocket and plays two choruses of a ballad, such as Embraceable You. exclusively with his left hand. Unfortunately, he does not do this in this album, but when you see him in person, ask him to play a left-handed solo for you. His left hand is de­veloped to such an extent that he can and does execute any passage or chord with his left hand that he would do with his right. When you realize that he has the fattest right hand of anyone since Tatum (he might even exceed Tatum for sheer speed) then you get an
idea of just what happens.

However, technique is only one facet of music. What of Phineas' basic musical style? From whence does he come and where is he going?

First, let me warn the reader of what not to do upon first hearing Phineas. Do not be so overpowered by his technique that you neglect to listen to the music he plays. Through all his technical intricacies I hear a wonderful musical mind, a mind that without copying has absorbed the music of the jazz masters. I get a funny feeling when I hear Phineas. I concentrate on his fan­tastically-"Bird'-influenced ideas and then I can't help but get the feeling that at any moment he is going to swing right into a Waller-James P. Johnson stride piano effect. He never quite does and I sometimes wish he would.

Phineas says his first jazz idols were Bird, Dizzy and Bud Powell. Later on, after he had begun to develop his own style, he heard Tatum. There is no doubt of the influence that these men left on Phineas. There is also evidence that he has listened to Erroll Garner.

However, there is never a question that Phineas has a unique approach to music. (In this album I believe Daahoud comes the closest to defining the Phineas Newborn style).


The only real criticism I have of his playing can be traced to his immaturity, both musically and in years. He tends to want to play everything in the same tempo. To be more explicit, he feels so relaxed at up-tempos that even in ballads he resorts to double-timing in order to utilize his technique. Also, he has a few figures of which he is fond. These appear a little too often in his playing. As soon as Phineas gets over the idea that he must create an impression the first time around the nightclub circuit, I am sure these minor faults will disappear.

Biographically, Phineas' history is not startling. The son of Phineas Newborn, Sr., a fine drummer and band leader in Memphis, he and his brother, Calvin, one year his junior, had an early musical beginning (Calvin plays guitar in the Phineas Newborn Quartet and is heard on some of the sides in this album). Phineas started the study of piano at the age of six with the pianist in his fathers band. He continued right through high (trumpet, tuba, baritone horn, French horn). Later on, he learned the vibes, and in college and the Arm/ he acquired the baritone, tenor and alto saxophones. Those who have heard him say he is nearly as fantastic on these various instruments as he is on the piano. For­tunately, Phineas has concentrated on piano and does not try to impress us with his versatility.

His formal education, in addition to graduating from the Memphis School System, consists of two years as a music major at Tenn. A and I. Later on he spent a year at Lemoyne College in Memphis, before he was drafted into the Army in August 1953. He was discharged in June 1955, and played with his father's band until last month when he made the break after the Willard Alex­ander agency convinced him he should come North and let the world hear his talent. I am sure that Count Basic, who is Phineas' greatest booster, had much influence on his decision.

As in any record, the music in this album speaks for itself. My personal favorites are the Clifford Brown Daahoud, and a very Tatumesque Newport Blues. I also like his treatment of the Ellington standard I’m Beginning to See the Light. He is accompanied very ably by two jazz greats, Oscar Pettiford on bass and Kenny Clarke on drums, in addition to his brother Calvin on guitar.                                             

- GEORGE WEIN”

Leonard Feather, who, as noted, became an early and frequent champion of Phineas’ music, offered these cogent observations about him and comparisons with other Jazz pianists in the liner notes to Phineas’ 1969 Contemporary album, Please Send Me Someone to Love [S-7622; OJCCD 947-2:

“For a more than a half century, there was a series of evolutions in keyboard jazz, which originated in ragtime, then was marked by the successive advent of stride, with its volleying left hand; horn-style piano, characterized mainly by a fusillade of octaves or long runs of single notes in the right hand; bebop piano, with its central concern for harmonic experiments and relatively limited left-hand punctua­tions; and a 1950s trend marked by a concern for rich, full chords and a more expansive left-hand concept.

The only pianist who succeeded in absorbing many character­istics of each of these phases, in fact the first authentic and com­plete virtuoso of jazz piano, was Art Tatum. His death in 1956 seemed to close the book; there was no room for development, no area to examine that he had not already explored.

Time has shown that there were indeed other directions. The atonal improvisations of Cecil Taylor were acclaimed by many observers as taking jazz forward into a freer, more abstract music. Bill Evans launched what I once characterized, in an essay on jazz piano for Show magazine (July 1963), as the Serenity School, cre­ating new harmonic avenues, new voicings, swinging without hammering, asserting tersely yet subtly, rarely rising above a mezzo-forte. McCoy Tyner, armed with exceptional technical facili­ty, moved along still another route with extensive use of modes as a departure from the traditional chordal basis.

All these changes during the late 1950s and throughout the '60s did nothing to demolish the theory that Art Tatum represent­ed the ultimate. Coincidentally, it was during the year of Tatum's death that Phineas Newborn, Jr. first came to New York and emerged from Memphis obscurity (he was born Dec. 14,1931 in Whiteville, Tenn.) to establish himself as the new pianistic pianist, in the Tatum tradition.

In the abovementioned Show article, I wrote: "Most astonish­ing of the dexterous modernists is Phineas Newborn, Jr. As small, timid, and frail as Peterson is big and burly, Newborn belies his meek manner with a relentlessly aggressive style. His technique can handle any mechanical problem and he has, moreover, a quick, sensitive response to the interaction of melody and harmo­ny." Commenting that most critics tended to be skeptical of tech­nical perfection, I wrote of Newborn's A World of Piano! album (Contemporary S-7600) that it was "the most stunning piano set since Tatum's salad days in the 1930s."


A year later, in 1964, I went out on a rare limb to declare unequivocally, in Down Beat, "Newborn is the greatest living jazz pianist."

Five years later, while perfectly content to let that categorical statement remain on the record, I reflected on what esthetic, what ratiocination led me to this conclusion. Under the spell of a set by Peterson in top form I might have made a similar remark. In either case, my reaction would have been primarily emotional, but the emotions in evaluating a work of art are often guided, per­haps subliminally, by a consciousness of the craftsmanship required for its creation.

Despite the chattering of the anti-intellectuals, I cannot see how any possible advantage can be found in technical limitation. Clearly technique can be abused, or used without imagination; I can think of a dozen popular pianists, some of them well-known via network television, who have made this point painfully clear. But a man like Newborn, who reached his present command of the instrument by practicing perhaps six or seven hours a day, automatically has an advantage over the simplistic artist, who resorts to simple figures and clichés only because that is as far as his fingers and mind will take him.

Phineas demonstrates all the virtues and none of the handi­caps (if there are any) inherent in knowing how to use the piano. Taking him on his own terms, he's an involved, committed artist, for whom the instrument is virtually an extension of the man. This would not be possible if he were in any way hamstrung by not being able to execute whatever idea may cross his mind.

I won't deny that when he uses a personal device, such as the parallel lines in unison an octave apart, I am impressed by the ease with which he dashes off such passages; but even more meaningful to me is the originality and artistry of the melodic structure he has been able to build.

When Phineas plays the blues, as he does on at least three tracks in this album, it is not down-home, backwoods blues, but it's just as deep a shade of blue, and comes just as straight from the heart, as if he were a primitive trying to make something meaningful out of three chord changes and a couple of riffs. I hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”

If you spend some time listening to the music of Phineas Newborn, Jr., I think that it would be safe to say that you, too will “… hear in him all that is emotional, as well as all that is cerebral and virtuosic, about jazz piano in one of its most sophisticated forms.”

After all, if Leonard Feather is indeed correct, there have only been two other Jazz pianists comparable to Phineas in the history of Jazz: - Bud Powell and Art Tatum.

Not bad company, eh?




Sunday, October 29, 2017

Phil Woods and The European Rhythm Machine

© -  Steven A. Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.


"Mr. Woods was one of the leading alto saxophonists in the generation that followed Charlie Parker, who had set an imposing new bar for the instrument while defining the terms of bebop. Rigorous, complex and brisk, bebop’s stylistic language would be a constant for Mr. Woods throughout his prolific career, as both a leader and a sideman.

For much of that career, he was a sought-after section player in big bands because of his ability, unusual at the time, to read sheet music with as much breezy authority as he brought to his solos. He recorded with the composer-arrangers Oliver Nelson, Michel Legrand and George Russell, among many others, and helped the trumpeter Clark Terry establish his Big Bad Band.

... Mr. Woods often declared, with a touch of self-deprecation, that he was more a stylist than an innovator."
- Nat Chinen, New York Times Obituary

Most Jazz fans didn't realize the significance of Phil's Paris-based quartet which he - with purposeful motive - called the "European Rhythm Machine [ERM]." [Some US based Jazz critics were very dismissive of the ability of European rhythm sections to swing and labeled them everything from plodding to flimsy.]

When I first posted this piece about the group to my blog, Phil wrote to thank me for my efforts in "putting it together; now my kids believe me when I tell them that all this really did happened." [Phil has a son, three stepdaughters and a grandson.] The ERM got constant and quite ecstatic coverage in the European Jazz press but not so much in the geocentric US Jazz publications.

Mike Zwerin, the late Jazz musician/writer who was based in Paris for many years, claimed that Jazz went to Europe to live. In the main, I think he was referring to expatriates such as drummer Kenny Clarke, pianist Bud Powell, tenor saxophonist Dexter Gordon and a number of other Jazz musicians who went to Europe in the 1950s and 1960s and set up residence there.

Paris also had a resuscitating effect on Phil Woods, because, as he explains in the following excerpt from his interview with Jazz columnist Steve Voce, after a very active career on the New York Jazz scene in the 1950s with Dizzy Gillespie's Big Band, the George Wallington's Quintet and a quintet he co-led with alto saxophonist Gene Quill, Phil spent most of the 1960s in the studios and teaching.

The 1968-1972 experience with his European Rhythm Machine brought Phil back into the Jazz Life and after a brief interregnum in California upon his return, he moved to Delaware Gap in Pennsylvania where he formed a quartet in 1974 and had his own group for over 40 years! [ Phil died on 9/29/2015].

"I spent a lot of time teaching between 1964 and 1967 and then in March 1968 I moved with my family to Paris. The jazz opportunities in Europe were good at that time. I formed the European Rhythm Machine almost as soon as I arrived. with George Gruntz on piano, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Daniel Humair. Later Gordon Beck took over on piano. We stayed together for four years. It was an experimental group and an innovative part of my life. [Bassist would take over for Henri Texier from 1971-72.]

As you say there were some periods of my life when I felt more creative than others. The ebb and flow of any evolutionary part of living is like that. You can't always be full out with the Creative thing.




You have to have time sometimes to ponder just where you're at. I hadn't recorded or played any jazz for years and suddenly I was in Europe and had a band and I was playing major festivals. I was even invited to play Newport."


“Phil Woods: a majestic instrumental voice, a fertile and very lucid imagination, a forceful swing. I do not see an altoist today who could equal him, at least from the point of view of instrumental command. To his triumph were associated the three Europeans who now constitute probably the strongest rhythm section on the Old Continent.”
- Arrigo Polillo, Musica Jazz, Milan


“In Phil Woods’ music, everything bears the same signature, his own. The cleanliness dazzles, the rhythmic and melodic happiness blooms in all simplicity.”
- Jean-Pierre Binchet, Jazz Magazine, Paris


“Phil Woods possesses eveything, the sound, the ideas, the swing, the power, the ease. Phil Woods: a monster.”
- Michel Delorme, Jazz Hot, Paris


“In Barcelona, The Phil Woods Quartet triumphed and one will remember for a long time this homogeneous group, creators of an original Jazz with an extraordinary contexture.. Phil Woods lavished an inventivesness, a sensitivity and an admirable instrumental mastership. All works presented constituted an homage to the cult of musical beauty.”
- Alberto Mallofre’, La Vanguadria, Barcelona


My apologies for the “quality” of the translations that form the lead-in to this piece, as well as for the translation to following insert notes by Jean-Louis Ginibre from Phil Woods And His European Rhythm Machine: Alive and Well in Paris [Toshiba-EMI Limited TOCJ-5960].


I wanted to stay as close to the writing in the original languages of Italian, Spanish and French in which they were published and this is the best I could do. The press excerpts and recording notes tend to be a bit overstated and perhaps over-enthusiastic, but this was typical of the excitement that alto saxophonist Phil Woods generated amongst European Jazz audiences and press when he moved to France in 1968 and caused quite a stir by using European players to form the rhythm section in his quartet - The European Rhythm Machine.


I’ve been listening to Phil Woods play alto saxophone for almost 60 years, and in my opinion he has never played like this before or since.


All Jazz musicians have resting places, or licks that they fall back on while they wait for more original ideas to form in their minds so that they can move forward in their improvisations.


Phil has his share of tricks and licks, but you’d never know it by the way he plays on The European Rhythm Machine recordings that were issued from about 1968 to 1972.


Unleashed from the restrictions of working primarily in a studio environment by his move to Europe and the reception that he received there, his playing is rich with a fresh inventiveness that is characterized by improvised phrases that seem to leap out of his horn.


In the forty years or so since the European Rhythm Machine disbanded, I have become so accustomed to Phil leading his own quartet or quintet, that I didn’t realize that the ERM is the place where it all began in terms of fronting his own group on a regular basis.


Up to this time, Phil’s bands were largely formed for recording purposes or for the odd gig in and around New York, but he made his living working in the studios.


When he couldn’t take it anymore, he accepted an invitation to come live in Paris and form his own group.


The invitation involved Jean-Louis Ginibre, who was the editor of the Paris-based Jazz Magazine, and his wife, Simone, who was forming an entertainment management business.


Here are Jean-Louis insert notes for the Japanese CD reissue of the European Rhythm Machine’s first recorded appearance which took place at 1968 Montreux Jazz Festival.


“Bologna, Barcelona, Paris, wherever they appear, Phil Woods, George Gruntz, Henri Texier and Daniel Humair provoke enthusiasm. The space devoted to these notes would not be sufficient to reprint the eulogistic comments that they have aroused in Europe since that day of April 27, 1968 when they formed as a regular unit.


For the fans of the European Continent, Phil Woods was, until now, a sideman of quality capable of “taking care of business” in every circumstance be it with Thelonious Monk, Benny Goodman, Dizzy Gillespie or Quincy Jones.


Now, everyday, he proves that he is a leader of exception and the best altoist of today.


For Phil Woods, the fact that he has left the United States is sort of a liberation.


Indeed, it was not a lack of work that made him leave the country. A remarkable reader and lead-alto, he could have lived at ease in the studios where the hits and jingles are recorded.


But for him, this comfort was nothing but servitude and left him feeling very unsatisfied. So he left the United States in 1968 with his family, in part to get away from the studios, to forget the atmosphere of violence that reigns today in the United States, but mostly to achieve his vocation which is to play Jazz.


Europe has welcomed him with open arms and Phil has wanted to show his gratitude in honoring his reputation as a Jazzman and the art that he defends.


When, for some American musicians, our Continent is nothing more but a parade ground where one can afford to lose many a battle, Phil has wanted to win them all and he has understood for this he needed to have by his side trained me in perfect communion of feelings and ideas.


So soon after he arrived in Paris he formed a quartet with Gruntz, Texier and Humair, a rhythm section of the highest quality.


Immediately, the four musicians found a basis of understanding and since then have not ceased to provoke the admiration of the fans by their perfect mutual understanding, their inventiveness, their musicality, their swing, their “joie de vivre”  and their rage to play. …


There are albums, there are albums more conservative, but there are few albums that are so simply beautiful.” - Jean-Louis Ginibre, Redecteur en chef, Jazz Magazine, Paris


The background as to how and why the European Rhythm machine was formed are contained in these insert notes by Leonard Feather, the esteemed Jazz author and critic, from the first European Rhythm Machine LP which was issued on MGM Records as Phil Woods and His European Rhythm Machine at The Montreux Jazz Festival [SE-4695]



“When Philip Wells Woods left the U.S. of A. in the spring of 1968 to become a Paris-based expatriate, there were those who said: ‘Why is he giving it all up? He's got it made!’


At a superficial glance it would have seemed that way. Phil Woods had established himself so firmly in jazz, earning his credentials with the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Benny Goodman, Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson, that he had been able financial stability that goes along with the willingness to move into new and lucrative areas.


He was accepted in studio circles, gaining the relative become an anonymous sideman. He had a lovely home in New Hope, Pa., an acre of land, a wife, four children. Unlike so many who become expatriates, he wasn't bugged by any scarcity of work. Still, he was sitting at home one day when the moment of truth hit him. ‘Chan, let's go,’ he said!


Very soon it began to happen after he had planted roots in Paris. Jean-Louis Ginibre, editor of Jazz Magazine, became a good friend; Simone Ginibre, his wife, became Phil's manager. The European Rhythm Machine, a permanently organized entity, soon was in such demand that in a climactic irony, the group was invited to play the 1969 Newport Jazz Festival. He stayed in town long enough to record the superb Round Trip album with Johnny Pate's help (Verve V6-8791), then headed back for his adopted home. He stays busy writing compositions and arrangements for European TV and radio stations (yes, they still have live radio on the Continent), and gigging at clubs and festivals with his still very much together quartet.


An engagement at the Montreux Jazz Festival proved particularly felicitous in terms of the general ambiance and the peak level of performance achieved by the group. The Swiss gala has proven lucky to several American jazzmen. In 1969 an album recorded there by the Bill Evans Trio (Verve V6-8762) was awarded a Grammy by NARAS as the best jazz combo record of the year. Recently a Montreux performance by Les McCann and Eddie Harris has become the top-selling jazz LP in this country. Perhaps now it is Phil Woods' turn to triumph.


It was in Paris, between cross-Continent hops in the fall of 1968, that I heard this luminous quartet for the first time, at the Club Cameleon. There was no time to hear any other music in town, but the brief encounter with the Rhythm Machine made the visit worthwhile. The Cameleon is a small cave, with room for perhaps 75 amateurs du jazz, but their number was well counterbalanced by their enthusiasm. The group feeling among the men that night is captured even more overwhelmingly in the Montreux recording.


Pianist George Gruntz, who is just a few months younger than Phil, was born in Basel, Switzerland and has worked with numerous other Americans—Donald Byrd, Lee Konitz, Roland Kirk, Dexter Gordon. As a composer (his works include several jazz symphonies and chamber pieces) he is represented here by the opening track, Capricci Cavaleschi, which after a brief thematic exposition gives extended solo opportunities to all hands. Henri Texier, the only Frenchman in this France-based combo, offers astonishing evidence of his flexibility, wealth of ideas and technical finesse. Daniel Humair is the man who set to rest for all time the false alarms
could swing with the best of the Americans. Born in 1938 in Geneva, Humair has visited the U.S. several times, most notably with the Swingle Singers.


In an interview with Lars Lysted for Down Beat, Phil once remarked: ‘I’m  an old bebopper, and Bird didn't play total reality. He just played music as it was to him then. That's enough.’ The unregenerate second-generation bopper is completely at ease in this new concert version of I Remember Bird. (Originally, on a big band date which Oliver Nelson and I put together, it was converted into a memorable concerto for Phil, on the first volume of Encyclopedia of Jazz in the '60s (Verve V6-8677). Phil plays it a hair faster here and provides more room for everyone to stretch out.


The Oakland-born Carla Bley is a composer and pianist who has become to the avant garde what Mary Lou Williams was to the swing era. Her Ad Infinitum gives the Rhythm Machine a chance to operate at a high level of abstraction, soon after the hauntingly melodic main theme has been established. Despite Phil’s sworn allegiance to the memory of Bird, it is evident here and elsewhere that the impact and influence of Coltrane and other seminal figures of the 1960s could not have been lost on him. Similarly Gruntz reflects some of the new pianistic forces of the past decade, Herbie Hancock among them.


Finally, speaking of Hancock, the set ends with Herbie's own composition Riot. This version, paradoxically, is far more suggestive of the title than Hancock's own treatment, though there is an element of turmoil in both. Humair, though he
acknowledges that his primary influences were Elvin Jones, Philly Joe Jones and Roy Haynes, is a figure of total authority here both as soloist and rhythm section component. As for Phil, one can only gasp at the range of emotions and
variegated and eminently satisfying performances. "A majestic instrumental voice, a fertile and very lucid imagination and forceful swing. I do not see which altoist could,
today, equal him, at least from the point of view of instrumental command." Those words, part of a review by Arrigo Polillo in the Milan magazine Musica Jazz and are an exact reflection of my own feelings about Phil Woods.


If you are not yet among the converted, this document of a memorable  Montreux rendezvous should bring you around to Pollilo's way of thinking and mine.”   - Leonard Feather




Phil offered his own thoughts about gigging with The European Rhythm Machine in these notes from their Phil Woods and his European Rhythm Machine at The Frankfurt Jazz Festival Embryo LP: [Stereo/SD 530] [in this 1971 performance, Gordon Beck had replaced George Gruntz on keyboard]:


“The Machine and I will always remember Frankfurt. The evening concert was very long and consisted of mostly free-jazz German groups. Originally we had planned on recording but, after the mid-day rehearsal, I felt it was not the place. The hall did not sound right and the ambiance in general was not conducive to a live album. So I thought! After the first five minutes or so of Freedom Jazz Dance, I suddenly realized that it was going to be one of those evenings when everything works. And, after the first free connecting link to Ode A Jean-Louis, I knew that everybody else felt the same way. We now employ the non-stop technique and try to join all of the material into a suite. It's more demanding on an audience (though certainly not as demanding as a totally free group) but we believe that people who are familiar with the group and know its ingredients will enjoy following each step in the collective improvised recipe.


Three basic ingredients:


1— The Audience


We've discussed this and agree that, after the first few bars, we knew and felt the communication with the audience was well established. Perhaps it was the relief at not being the recipients of hostility but, once the rapport was there, all concentration and energy went into the making of the music.


2—The Acoustics
We could hear each other fantastically well. This is the biggest problem about playing the way we do; we must be able to hear each other and react or the result is forced. In Frankfurt the conditions were as near perfect as it is possible.


3—The Piano


Gordon said that as soon as he touched the keyboard he knew that the concert was going to be a bitch. Show me a happy piano player and I'll show you a happy band.


Many thanks to the fine people who present the Frankfurt Festival. Horst Lippmann and Fritz Rau (Horst Lippmann supervised this recording) and the engineers. But above all I must mention Simone and Jean-Louis Ginibre, without whose encouragement and help all this would not have been possible.” - PHIL WOODS


There is also more from Jean-Louis Ginibre about Phil and the ERM in these notes from  Phil Woods and his European Rhythm Machine at The Frankfurt Jazz Festival.


All those who have followed attentively the evolution of jazz and its men have known for some time that within Phil Woods lies part of the future of jazz. Phil and His European Rhythm Machine triumph in clubs, concert halls, the most famous festivals. Praised in Montreux, Newport, Bologna, Carthage, Frankfurt, Berlin, Barcelona, Scandinavia, France, they conquer each day new audiences and make friends wherever they play. Phil and his men create between the audience and themselves affectionate rapport and establish passionate bonds. They communicate. They diffuse their "joie de vivre", their rage to play, their enthusiasm and their faith in modern art.


Phil Woods was born twice. The first time in Springfield (Mass.), in 1931, the second time in Paris (France) in 1968. The man who was the companion of Gene Quill, the sideman of Dizzy Gillespie and Benny Goodman, the lead-alto of Quincy Jones and Oliver Nelson, died to be reborn better. When he set foot on the earth of France, Phil Woods opened his eyes and discovered that many people were ready to have faith in him.


Musicians looked at him with admiration, an agent gave him a helping hand with enthusiasm, jazzfans listened to him with fervor. And, thanks to this audience, this agent, these musicians and, of course, his talent, Phil Woods managed to avoid the trap befalling many American jazzmen who come to settle in Europe: becoming a local musician, an American expatriate playing here and there with whichever rhythm section is available in each city. Phil Woods' new life began in Paris on April 28th, 1968. On that day, Phil was due to open in a small club, the "Cameleon". His manager had booked around him what she thought would be the ideal rhythm section for him: pianist George Gruntz, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Daniel Humair. Two Swiss and one Frenchman.


From the first moment the contact was established. A mutual understanding, an identical faith, a similar sensitivity united them. They decided to remain together and to form a steady group. Quickly, the whole of Europe was informed of the existence of this new group to which, in order to give it its own personality, a name was given: PHIL WOODS AND HIS EUROPEAN RHYTHM MACHINE. The communion was such between the four men that the style of the group continually evolved. New outlooks were discovered and new trails cleared. George Wein, passing thru Paris, heard the group and asked them to participate in the Newport Jazz Festival.


After playing there, in July 1969, George Gruntz had to leave the group because of other commitments. Phil saw only one man in Europe capable of filling the chair: an Englishman, Gordon Beck. Phil contacted him and Gordon accepted eagerly. With this new element, the Machine started off again better than ever. It accelerated and the evolution went on. Success, too. London, Rome, Belgrade, Warsaw, Palermo, Molde. New victories, new successes. The U.S.A. began to be moved. And it was from America that came the most unexpected, the most tremendous, the most unbelievable of encouragements. In 1970, Down Beat published the results of its polls. In the Critics Poll, Phil was voted No. 1 alto (Established Talent Category) and his group was voted first of the combos (Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition). A few months later, in the Readers Poll, Phil came second behind Cannonball Adderley. In 1969, he was fifth! They say that no one is a prophet in his own land and Phil had to move to Europe to be admired by the Americans. When he lived there, he was a musician among many others, a little better considered than most but that was all.


The music speaks for itself. No need to describe it, to comment on it, to be more explicit. Allow me, however, to make a personal remark: Phil Woods is, for me, the greatest alto-player alive. His group is the best in Europe and, in the United States, I only know of two others capable of competing with it. Phil Woods and His European Rhythm Machine will live very long. A long road opens in front of them, a road spread with traps at times but with many triumphant moments.” -  JEAN-LOUIS GINIBRE Editor of "Jazz-Magazine" PARIS


When I started this piece on Phil and The European Rhythm Machine I could barely find any mention of it in any of the major Jazz research tomes, although I must admit that my canvassing of The Literature was by no means exhaustive.


I am not a Jazz authority or scholar; if anything, I am a compiler [sometimes, a not too discerning one, although I try to be accurate about what I post]. I collect information on Jazz topics that interest me and then “cut and paste it” to form many of the features that appeared on JazzProfiles.


It is my effort at developing an anthology of information all in one place for those readers who wish to have a more in-depth look at the musician being profiled on the blog.


With this in mind, there follows a lengthy interview that Phil gave to the English Jazz writer and critic, Les Tomkins, in 1969 about how the European Rhythm Machine came into existence, an excerpt from Phil's 2010 interview with Marty Nau for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Project on the same subject, as well as two, additional reviews of recordings made by Phil and the ERM.


We close with our usual video that provides you with an example of the music of the group, in this case, the version of Freedom Jazz Dance that was recorded at the 1969 Montreux Jazz Festival.



Breaking Out of The Studio: Phil Woods as told to Les Tomkins


Pennsylvanian alto saxophonist, clarinettist, bandleader and composer Phil Woods talks to Les Tomkins in 1969 about his quartet The European Rhythm Machine, running a music camp and playing across Europe.


Interview : 1969


Source: Jazz Professional/National Jazz Archive
“It feels good to be playing, I must say; I enjoy this rhythm section very much. Having worked with them almost a year makes a difference. It's becoming a little more instinctive, some of the things we do. The level of creation and rapport is a lot higher. A good feeling, one that I've sorely missed.


When I was in London a year ago, I got some correspondence from a lady, the wife of the editor of a French magazine, who was just beginning to get into personal management. She flew over to London during the Ronnie Scott engagement, asked me what my plans were, and said that she knew a very good rhythm section.
Would I be interested in going into the Chameleon in Paris and seeing how it developed from there? The individuals were more or less hand-picked for me. I'd known Daniel Humair ten years ago; George Grunz I knew a little bit as a pianist, but not personally, and I didn't know Henri Texier, the bass player, at all. So I had a ready-made group. I don't think I could have done it by myself. I wouldn't have known where to go, in the first place, to find this calibre of player. Daniel and Henri are from Paris, but George is from Basle, Switzerland-I would never think of looking there.


We've been to the Barcelona Festival; we did a Norwegian tour, Stockholm, a few gigs in Brussels, a tour of the South of France, radio and television in Italy. The only place we haven't hit yet is Germany, and I think that's forthcoming. We've kept quite busy; mostly festivals and concerts, which is essentially where all the work is anyway. Not so much clubs.


Clubs are difficult in the cities because they can't afford the transportation. That's why there's that perpetual thing of doing a single and working with the house rhythm section. Sometimes, in the face of economic tribulation, I have to go out and work with the local musicians. Gradually the quartet is catching on, though. I think we'll be working more and more. I hope so. We're playing at the Montreux Festival. And we go to Newport this year; that should be a good boost for us.
Our conception? Well, we're not teenagers, by any means; we've all been playing for quite a few years. The youngest member is Henri Texier, who's 23. We cover all of our own individual musical backgrounds within the group context. Free collective, but very tight; we're quite aware of form. We use freedom when the tune or the emotion of the moment calls for it. We're not free jazz players, but I don't think I'm a pure bebopper either. I've taken all the elements that have made up my musical experience.


We play some new and some older pieces. If I do a ballad, I play it a different way. We try to get as much variety as possible within the jazz quartet form. Because the instrumentation is such that there's not too much you can do; so you have to rely upon the texture of the tune itself.


I remember there was some criticism last year when I was here with the British rhythm section, asking how come I couldn't find a new format other than solo, solo, bass, fours and out. But there's no other possible way you can do it with a quartet. I mean, you could start with a bass solo but in the interests of musical sense, you can either vary the solo format by having the piano go first, or maybe a little group improvisation. You don't have too much colour to work with; it's the variety of your material that kind of offsets that.


On a ballad, I may be the only soloist. We have several fairly extended pieces, where everybody has the chance to get deep. It's a varied book; it covers just about every situation, I think. Everybody in the group has contributed, which makes it a good thing.


Why the name European Rhythm Machine? We had to call it something and I didn't want to just call it the Phil Woods Quartet. And I'm quite proud of the rhythm section; I just like people to know that there are some European swingers. The gap is narrowing. That's a bunch of nonsense about: "Oh well, they don't swing." Maybe that was true thirty or forty years ago.


The rhythmic thing has always been the criticism that you've heard. There were no drummers in Europe, and so forth. I think that's fast dating; the musical level is fantastic, as you know, with people like Dave Holland, Gordon Beck.


And they sound marvellous, by the way. I must put a plug in for the Gordon Beck Trio, which was my rhythm section last year. They've made fantastic development; I can hear it, especially in Cordon. Tony Oxley has certainly mellowed. And Jeff Clyne is, as always, solid as a rock; he's broadened even more. It's a delight for me to hear them again, and they're all very nice cats.


I like Europe very much. Naturally it's given me the chance to do what I've always wanted to do, and I'll be forever grateful for that. European audiences are very astute. I'm quite content. The family is well- adjusted; the children are all very fluent in French, attending French schools. My French is creeping along; my wife is doing very well. And we like the living, although France right now is a little shaky politically; but we still love the country very much. That's part of the whole world picture; France is going through the throes of economic troubles. I'm not really qualified to speak of politics of my own country, let along the one where I'm a guest. But sometimes it gets a bit unsettled there. I arrived right in the middle of the May riots; the week I opened in the Chameleon was when it began. Fantastic. But it's worked out well. I'm quite pleased.


My reason for leaving the States was that I wanted to play, essentially. I felt the only way I could do this would be to just sever all ties with my image. Which had been cultivated for me; I tried not to contribute to it, but it was unavoidable that I be labelled a studio musician. It was just inevitable for it to happen.


And I never considered myself a studio man at all. Most of the work I did then, even in the studios, was in a jazz- orientated vein, if you check the records. I did my share of the commercial things, television jingles and whatever, but it was usually for the jazz- based writers who would ask for me. I mean the schlocky contractors didn't want to hire a jazz alto player. I was used as a jazzman within the studio scene, but as far as getting any gigs outside of that scene, I was considered more studio than jazz.


A lot of times people would say: "Well, he's so busy in the studios he wouldn't take a gig in a jazz club." You know, and they wouldn't even call, just figured they'd get a "No". Actually, I'd have been only too glad to do it.


I was very dissatisfied and bored with what I was doing. I felt: "This is not what I set out to do." And I never feel that I tossed the towel in. It was just circumstances. Also it says something for the state of jazz in my country; perhaps the state of jazz all over. I know the same trap occurs in Europe. You have your session musicians that are labelled the same way, and some of them are fine jazz players. It's right back to trying to make a dollar or a pound playing music; it's very difficult.


That's why I consider myself quite fortunate to be able to keep the quartet going. I'm also getting opportunities to do some writing, which I've always been very interested in. The one thing I want to do is more teaching; I haven't started any yet. I'll be doing some clinics in Europe; I did one here with the London Youth Jazz Orchestra. Eventually I intend to get into that.


My school back home went on for five summers. Before I left it had been sold as a remedial reading camp for backward children. It just became financially unfeasible to maintain. We had an administrative staff, the people that owned the school. I was Music Director, generally responsible for the co-relating of the different departments. Like, I'd work with the ballet department if we were doing a jazz piece with some dancers. It wasn't exclusively my camp, although it became more of a jazz camp, because we got a little publicity out of the fact that a jazz musician was teaching. But not enough to keep it going, which was truly a shame.
It was absolutely marvellous while it lasted, a fantastic experience for me and my whole family. Because we only lived a mile from the school out in Pennsylvania, amid an estate of lovely scenic woods. You'd visit the school and over here you'd see some kid with a tenor under the apple tree, practising some Pres licks or something, while some other kids over there would be dancing. We had all of the performing arts represented. Very exciting.


Towards the end we developed quite a few good players. In fact, I'm quite proud of one young man; his name is Richie Cole. He's now playing lead alto with the Buddy Rich band. I get a bigger kick out of seeing his name in print than I do my own. It's a good feeling to see an ex-student of mine, still only around 18 making it like that. He’s very talented and I'm sure you're going to hear more from him. Without the school, it's possible that this kid might not be there today.
So if only one had come out of it, it's worth it.


Section and lead playing is something you can teach to a certain extent but it's a deep experience which must be shared by the kid within working circumstances. This is what the school supplied- we worked on ensemble and big band sound- I mean, we played free pieces. I gave the kids free rein to play the music they wanted to. I wasn't about to tell them: "Well, you'd better learn all your Bird licks or you won't get a gold star." Play what you want, but let's play correctly, as musicians, with a professional level of performing. …”


Marty Nau 2010 Interview with Phil for the Smithsonian Jazz Oral History Archive


[Phil Woods]“[Late 1960s] The record business had changed completely, you know, it was now you know the three cretins with an ewee [electronic wind instrument], a lot of guitars. It changed and the gigs were falling apart. And so I remember I said to Chan [Phil’s wife], “Let‟s go to Europe, let‟s go back,” because we spent that year, ‘59 and ‘60, in Europe and we loved it being based in Paris.


So I said, “I can‟t make the studio scene anymore. I want to play jazz,” you know. So, we packed up our matching luggage, our 24 cardboard cartons [MN chuckles] and uh I, I had a gig I had two weeks at Ronnie Scott‟s club in London and then I had a couple of German workshops. In those days, they each the radio orchestras would have would bring in a not a big bands but famous players from all the different countries and they put together a special project. I had a couple of those. So, we uh we flew to England and did Ronnie Scott‟s and then we were actually heading for Amsterdam because we didn‟t think we could afford Paris.


And, in fact, I bought a Fiat 1500 for delivery in Amsterdam, and um when I  was working in Ronnie Scott‟s, a guy by the name of uh Jean Louis Ginibre, who was the editor of Jazz magazine in Paris, came to London, heard I was in London, knew who I was, and said, “You know, you‟ve got to come to Paris.” And I said, “Well, we‟re thinking of …” He said, “Come to Paris.” He says, “My wife‟s going to start booking. Simone Ginibre, who became George Wein‟s right-hand lady, girl Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday, started booking. But I was her first client. So we went to Paris and drove around the Arch of Triumph with Jean Louis and Simone Ginibre and we went to Paris and he put a band together for me which was Daniel Humair on drums, Henri Texier on bass and George Gruntz on piano, became the European Rhythm Machine.
[Marty Nau]: Later, uh replaced by Gordon Beck,
[PW]: Replaced by Gordon Beck and Ron Mathewson replaced Tex. But we always had Daniel on drums.


Man, you know, from playing jingles and all that stuff all of a sudden I‟m playing every major festival in Europe, you know, because of Jean Louis‟ influence and Simone booking us. I man, right off the bat we started recording for Pathé the French label, did a thing called “Alive and Well,” it was received very well and man I was off and running man five years of you know headlining and stuff, ….”

The full, 66-page text of Phil's interview with Marty about all aspects of his career can be located via this link: 

BBC Review. Peter Marsh. 2003. Phil Woods And His European Rhythm Machine: Alive and Well in Paris [Toshiba-EMI Limited TOCJ-5960]


“In 1968 alto player Phil Woods gave up a promising career as a sideman and studio musician to move to Paris, in the belief that Europe was a much healthier place (both politically and culturally) to be a jazz musician.


Strangely, he was right. Within a month or two he'd hooked up with a band who'd all go on to be important European jazz artists in their own right; pianist George Gruntz, bassist Henri Texier and drummer Daniel Humair. A storming set at the 1968 Newport Festival suggested this was a band to be reckoned with; though visiting American jazzmen usually worked with local pickup bands while in Europe, this was a different kettle of fish. The ERM stayed together for five years (with only two personnel changes) and arguably produced the altoist's finest and most exploratory work.


Woods, a self confessed 'old bebopper', was deeply in thrall to the work of Charlie Parker, but the ERM's remit included nods to the emergent avant garde. On this date (recorded in 1969) they cover tunes by Carla Bley and Herbie Hancock; though Woods was publicly distrustful of free jazz (he famously dismissed Anthony Braxton's music in a Downbeat blindfold test) he was obviously attracted to the possibilities of improvising over more expansive structures. Hancock's "Riot" provokes an electrifying solo from the altoist that recalls Eric Dolphy's elastication of bebop language.


Pretty much everything here is taken at an alarmingly high tempo. Woods' bebop sensibilities are intact, but he rarely resorts to merely recycling old licks; or if he does, he stitches them together in new ways. More crucially, his tone never suffers at speed; where other altoists get screechy, Woods' tone remains satisfyingly fruity, each note deftly articulated.


Humair is equally dazzling; there's some of Elvin Jones' polyrhythmic approach at work, coupled with the effortless complexity of Roy Haynes. And (aided by Texier's flowing, inventive lines) he swings too; Woods noted ruefully that Humair's abilities were accepted with some surprise by American audiences (obviously unused to the notion that any European musicians could be worth their time).


Later editions of the band with Gordon Beck at the keyboard would take Woods into more exploratory pastures, flirting with electric instruments and rock rhythms, but this Montreux set is second generation bebop of the highest order. Recommended.”



Review of Phil Woods and His European Rhythm Machine [Inner City IC 1002]by Michael G. Nastos for www.allmusic.com


“In 1970, when Inner City Records was just getting off the ground, Phil Woods was in Europe enjoying himself, and collaborating with musicians who were definitely feeling the spell of the Miles Davs  groundbreaking jazz fusion epic Bitches Brew. While always a staunch straight-ahead bebop player,Woods decided to mix it up a bit and incorporate elements of funk, rock, and free improvisation, much to the likely chagrin of his listeners.


In fact, a vitriolic letter printed on the back cover from an unidentified fan residing in Chicopee Falls, MA, rips Woods for abandoning melody, criticizes his titles, and actually threatens him with physical violence should he ever show up in his town. Woods gives his terse reply, but as cynical as this discourse is, it could all have been whipped up by Woods to deflect any detractors to his "new thing." Truth be told, the music here is inspired and focused, even if it is not what devotees might expect. British electric pianist Gordon Beck (who took over for original keyboardist George Gruntz), French acoustic bassist Henri Texier, and Swiss drummer Daniel Humair are all extremely talented musicians, who alongside the excitable Woods forge strong bonds in amalgamating this modern jazz into a personalized sound.


Bookended by really long jam-type pieces, the album also retains a certain amount of arranged and complex melody lines. The opener, "Chromatic Banana," is the piece that caused the letter-writing fan's consternation, and in the hilarious liner notes, Woods offers listeners a chance to win one in simulated plastic. Musically, it moves fast from 6/8 to free to 5/4, 4/4, and 7/8 meters in pre-fusion rock-funk modes, with the alto and Varitone-modified sax of Woods wheezing, wailing, improvising, and eventually vocally scatting.


Beck's "The Day When the World..." has a folkish intro on the Hohner electric piano, moves from a steady rock beat to a poppish tune, and concludes with introductions of the band members by one of the leader's children in English and French. A combo track of Beck and Woods, "The Last Page/Sans Melodie" starts as a pleasant ballad, then quickens to a bop and rock pace with Woods on a Varitone clarinet. The most straight jazz-oriented cut is also contributed by Beck: "Ultimate Choice" is a fleet bebop discourse between the pianist and alto saxophonist, with hard attacks and Woods digging in and establishing his territory. The short "A Look Back" is actually forward-thinking and progressive in a spontaneous manner via the spare recorder playing of Woods underpinning clacky percussion, rattles, and bowed bass.


This recording, the second overall release in the Inner City catalog (with artwork containing a Rube Goldberg-type Honeywell computer schematic and the label's original skyscraper type logo), has been issued on CD, and it is a testament to the tenacity of Phil Woods to think outside the box occasionally, while losing none of his identity. The project deserves a revisit, despite some of the fans' misgivings.”