Saturday, December 12, 2020

Phil Woods on Al Cohn

 © Copyright ® Steven Cerra, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

The following excerpts are from Dr. Larry Fisher’s extensive 1988 interview with alto saxophonist and band leader Phil Woods [1931-2015] on the subject of Jazz saxophonist and composer-arranger Al Cohn [1925] who had just passed away that year.

It was conducted on the campus of East Stroudsburg University which is the home of the Al Cohn Memorial Jazz Collection.

The full interview appears in the Summer/Fall 2020 issue of The Note Magazine and you can make a contribution in support of the Foundation that underwrites the magazine and the collection via this link.

Phil and Al are two of the universally recognized giants of the Jazz scene during the second half of the 20th century. In Phil’s case, his contributions continued until his death in 2015. There’s nothing like a Jazz musician who knows what he’s talking about when it comes to describing what makes a cohort’s approach to the music significant and special.

© -  Dr. Larry Fisher/, copyright protected; all rights reserved.

“LF:  What  can  you  tell   me  about  Al's personality?

PW: Funny, funny, funny guy.

LF: Do you have any favorite stories about him?

PW: Well I have one I just heard. Somebody asked him if he played "Giant Steps" and he said, "yes but I use my own changes." If you're a musician and know "Giant Steps" it's god damn hysterical. A favorite one I like is: supposedly he was watching a baseball game in a bar and somebody said, "what's the score Al?" He said, "ten to one" and somebody said, "who's winning?" and Al said, "ten!" Ah, the famous one is when he was in Scandinavia. They have a beer in Denmark and it's very strong. A couple of those will knock your socks off. It's called Elephant Beer, and somebody said, "Al have you tried the Elephant Beer?" Al said, "No, I drink to forget!" I mean he was so fast.

LF: I find that many musicians that have great improvising skills with their horns are also very quick with their wit.

PW: You'd be surprised some of them don't have a sense of humor, but most of them do. Zoot was also very witty and very quick and very dry. Zoot was drier than Al. Al was always into jokes, I mean he always had a joke. But not so much after Zoot died. I remember Al said to me one time, "life isn't so funny any more," and I knew what he meant. But that didn't stop him from telling jokes.

LF: Do you think that those recordings he made with Zoot will be remembered more than any others?

PW: Oh yeah. "From A to Z" and those albums for anybody that knows their stuff. You're darn tootin. Or stuff that he did later, especially like the solo stuff he did with just Jimmy Rowles and Al playing. That's a beautiful album. Just the two of them playing for some of that. And that's the real salon chamber of music. There is nothing quite as good as those two guys together (Al and Zoot).

LF: What musicians do you think influenced Al more than anyone else?

PW: Lester Young, Charlie Parker, Louie Armstrong for sure. Not necessarily in that order. Also Ben Webster and Coleman Hawkins, Prez, I think, would be the key, but not the sole influence. Al listened to everybody. Towards the end, a lot of Duke. He was really into Duke.

LF: Historians like to put labels on players. Would you say Al's style was more Swing or Be-Bop? How would you describe it?

PW: Oh he was Swing. He was close to, I mean just a little before Bop. It was a very modern Swing. He was right between Lester Young and Charlie Parker in which he utilized the best of the elements that fit for him. You've got to remember that Al had consummate harmonic sense. He was a fine pianist. He was very sophisticated. One of his songs, "Tain't NoUse," uses the beginning of Petrushka or was it Firebird? I forget, maybe I got my Stravinsky wrong but it's nice chromatic harmony. A direct quote from Stravinsky. He was extremely erudite in his approach to all the music. I think he went with a Lester Young swing but he adapted quickly to the new harmony in the extended altered chords. It was no big deal to Al to think that way, but as a musician he knew how to play changes, man.

LF: What made Al and Zoot's recordings so special to everyone?

PW: Oh because they were just so special. It was just a wonderful tandem team. They both had similar roots. Al perhaps had a stronger harmonic root, Zoot perhaps a stronger swinging root. Put them together and you had the best music possible improvised at that moment.

LF: Do you think they expressed their different personalities in their playing?

PW: I think everybody has a different personality. Al had his harmonic sophistication and Zoot his rhythmic sophistication. They both played hip changes and they both swung, but Al could play the piano and knew more about chords. Zoot had more of an instinctive rhythmical sense.

LF: Do you think their sense of humor came out in their playing?

PW: Well I roomed with both of them. They were both extremely funny.

LF: How would you show humor in playing?

PW: Any number of ways, by obscure quotes you would do on your horn which they would do sometimes accidentally. I remember on one New Year's Eve broadcast from the Half Note Zoot, instead of going into "Auld Lang Syne" went into "Happy Birthday" I was on tour with Zoot in Russia. I mean rooming with Zoot in Russia is truly amazing. Everybody said your rooms are going to be bugged and I looked at Zoot and I said they won't know what the hell we're talking about anyway.

LF: Many musicians have played the tenor saxophone. In your opinion is there anything specific that is unique about Al's playing or his approach to the instrument?

PW: Yeah, it was Al Cohn. Words can't describe it, his musical sound speaks for itself. The most important part of course is that all the great players have a distinctive sound. When you heard a tenor sax you simply said, "that's Al, that's Zoot, that's Lester, that's Ben Webster," that's what comes first. All of the swing and the harmony and all that comes later. First you got to have a distinctive sound otherwise it sounds like cookie cutter jazz like so many of the younger players. I mean they all sound the same. They use the same mouthpiece, the same reed, the same set up. Al had a sound, a distinctive sound.

LF: A beautiful, rich sound.

PW: Big, and when he got his new false teeth towards the end he was getting louder and higher. And he was practicing more and more. Steve Gilmore, my bass player lived close to Al. Al went out and bought a four-wheel drive with a little snow plow in front and he'd go over and he'd plow Steve out but he'd have his tenor in the back. And in return Steve would have to play like, "All The Things You Are” in the key of E. I mean when Al wanted to practice, he'd go by Steve's house and he'd play stanzas but he'd play them in any key possible. A Major, five sharps, 10 sharps, 15 sharps, whatever. That, to him, was working out. I guarantee it. That's no mean feat. But Gilmore told me that which I think is very interesting: "He would plow you out but you had to play in E with him!"

LF: Al was not as well known as Zoot Sims or some of the other tenor saxophonists of that time. Why?

PW: Perhaps because Zoot toured more. Zoot toured a lot for Norman Grantz and had a lot more exposure. He did more records under his

own name.

LF: You said before that Al didn't really tour that much was that because he liked to write more?

PW: Al wrote. Al liked to write. It wasn't a matter of writing but it was just a quicker way to make a buck. It was good money and he had a family to raise and all other responsibilities for a young family man and this kept him in New York and he was a New York guy. I mean who wants to go off on a bus when you have the best of both worlds: write all day and play all night which is a lot of time what he actually did.”

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