In the estimation of jazz fans and critics alike, Phil Woods and his Quintet are virtually peerless at the pinnacle of modern jazz today. The winner of four Grammy awards, the alto saxophone and clarinet master is a perennial favorite in jazz surveys; in 1991 Woods topped Down Beat magazine’s 56th Annual Reader’s Poll as alto saxophonist while the Phil Woods Quintet was voted the number one Jazz Acoustic Combo by readers and cited as the top Acoustic Jazz Group in Down Beat’s 39th Annual Critic’s Poll (edging out the massively popular Wynton Marsalis groups in both cases). As San Francisco Examiner music critic Philip Elwood summed it up in a 1991 live performance review: "The music performed by Phil Woods and his colleagues is, by my standards, definitive jazz.”
The ascent to such lofty heights of acclaim, however, has come only through decades of diligence for the musician that USA Today dubbed "the hardest working man in be-bop.” Since his recording debut in 1954, Woods has appeared on hundreds of albums, with artists ranging from Billie Holiday, Dizzy Gillespie, and Carmen McRae to Bill Evans, Quincy Jones, Michel Legrand, Oliver Nelson, and Billy Joel (he played the solo on Joel’s 1977 hit "Just the Way You Are”). Last year alone, before recording the live Full House for Milestone, he could be heard on nine discs, including studio and concert dates with his Quintet and Little Big Band, in duo and trio settings, as accompanist and soloist on singer Carol Sloane’s The Real Thing, and in collaboration with his longtime alto hero, Benny Carter, on My Man Benny, My Man Phil.
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1931, Woods inherited an alto saxophone from his uncle and started taking lessons at the age of twelve. In 1948 he began his studies in New York City, first for a summer at the Manhattan School of Music and then for four years at Juilliard, where he graduated in 1952 with a major in clarinet and a minor in composition. His arrival on the New York scene began in earnest in 1954—55 when the young altoist could be heard gigging in a variety of bands, including his own groups with his alto-playing partner Gene Quill. Like all alto saxophonists of that seminal bebop era, Woods was measured against the standard set by Charlie Parker, although he names Benny Carter and Johnny Hodges as even greater influences on the horn, and acknowledges the impact of Bud Powell, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk as well.
After recording with George Wallington, Al Cohn, Joe Newman, and others, Woods was recruited by Quincy Jones into the Dizzy Gillespie Big Band that toured the Middle East in 1957. From that point on, Woods built an international reputation, joining Jones again on a 1959 European tour of the musical Free and Easy, and traveling to the Soviet Union with Benny Goodman in 1962. Indeed, so attractive was the continental reception of jazz, as opposed to the primacy of rock in the U.S., that Woods pulled up stakes and moved to Europe in 1968, forming the European Rhythm Machine and touring internationally for the next five years. In 1973, he returned to the U.S., living briefly in Southern California before settling in Pennsylvania, where he has lived ever since.
Upon his return to the East Coast, he formed the Phil Woods Quartet, which, with founding members Steve Gilmore and Bill Goodwin, evolved into the current Quintet. It was not long before the jazz poll honors and Grammy nominations began mounting in proportion to the band’s artistry. The musical chemistry of the group cannot be underestimated, and the empathy owes much to the rhythm section team of drummer Goodwin and bassist Gilmore, who have played with Woods for the past 18 years. A native of Los Angeles, Goodwin began teaching himself drums after hearing Shelly Manne’s work on the soundtrack of The Man with the Golden Arm. Since 1959, his professional career has included stints with Bill Evans, Stan Getz, Jim Hall, Gerry Mulligan, Tony Bennett, and Gary Burton. While working resorts in the Pocono Mountains he met New Jersey-born Steve Gilmore, who had returned to Pennsylvania after four years of playing with Ira Sullivan, Flip Phillips, Paul Winter, and others in Florida. Gilmore had played both jazz and symphonic music during high school, and studied with Ray Brown at Toronto’s Advanced School of Contemporary Music.
The more recent additions to the Phil Woods Quintet, pianist Jim McNeely and trombonist Hal Crook, also amassed impressive credentials before joining the band in 1989 and 1990, respectively. McNeely, born in Chicago, had established himself in the 1970s, playing with Ted Curson and Chet Baker before assuming a six-year role with the Thad Jones/Mel Lewis Orchestra and the Mel Lewis Orchestra, followed by four years with the Stan Getz Quartet. In August 1990, he assumed the Quintet piano chair vacated by veteran Hal Galper. Crook, originally from Providence, Rhode Island, graduated from Berklee College of Music in 1971 with a degree in Arranging and Composition, leading to assignments with Doc Severinsen’s Tonight Show Orchestra, Woody Herman’s and Artie Shaw’s big bands, Toshiko Akiyoshi and Lew Tabackin, Thad Jones, Zoot Sims, Tony Bennett, Diana Ross, Michel Legrand, and many others. He first played with Woods in 1981 and joined the Little Big Band in 1988 before making an appearance on the Quintet’s 1989 album, Flush, and subsequently replacing trumpeter Tom Harrell as a permanent member.
As is evident in the song selection for Full House, both McNeely and Crook have been thoroughly integrated into the Quintet as composers, contributing to an ever-changing repertoire of original and unusual material. And through that process of constant renewal, the Phil Woods Quintet balances a stalwart commitment to the mainstream jazz tradition and a dedication to moving it forward with sounds that are fresh, vital, and among the most respected in contemporary music.