Tom Harrell: A Quest. Part 1, The Phil Woods Years – The Phil Woods Quintet

(a continuation of my Trip through Harrell-land in search of a song (or two or three) for inclusion in my “Horn of Pretty” playlist)

Quartet + One = Quintet

It was late 1983. The great alto saxophonist Phil Woods was wild about Harrell’s playing and desperately wanted to add Harrell to his decade-old Quartet. The other members were equally enthusiastic. Original members bassist Steve Gilmore and drummer Bill Goodwin had played with Harrell in Chuck Israels’s National Jazz Ensemble in the mid-70s. (Hal Galper, the other member of the Quartet, had replaced pianist Mike Melillo five years earlier.) In fact since the Quartet had already scheduled gigs at previously contracted fees, they all agreed to a pay cut in order to carve out a salary for “Tommy” (Neil Tesser). Thus came about the great Phil Woods Quintet of 1983/1984-1989.

I did not know this at the time. In the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, I was too busy with career and family to follow music closely. That changed in the mid-90s, with one child out of the nest and with a consulting job that had me traveling most weeks and with time by myself in the evenings. For a while I even took up the tenor saxophone. During a year-long gig in Boston I lined up a wonderful teacher named Michael. Michael was from Harlem and knew jazz and the jazz scene intimately. Unfortunately I could not learn to improvise my way out of a paper bag, but I cherished my weekly lesson. In the evening, by lesson’s end, we were the last ones in the school. It fell to Michael to lock up, and when I realized he was taking a cab home (due to a medical condition, he could not drive), I insisted on driving him, so we would hang out, often for a couple hours, talking about jazz and life.

Michael had a thing about the purposeful articulation of each note, and his exemplars in this regard were Dexter Gordon on tenor, Pepper Adams on baritone (Michael was especially caustic in his negative comparison to Gerry Mulligan!), and Phil Woods on alto. To make up for the lost decades, I was buying CDs right and left now, often relying on Richard Cook and Brian Morton’s The Penguin Guide to Jazz on CD. I bought a handful of recommended Phil Woods albums and was blown away. These included the CD reissue of the new Quintet’s first (double LP) recording, Integrity: The New Phil Woods Quintet Live, recorded live in April 1984 in Bologna, Italy.

Cook & Morton: “This was one of the great touring and recording bands of the 1980s … any who have heard the group in concert will surely want this live record. Harrell had worked for some years as a freelance in search of a context, and with Woods he secured a precise focus” (as cited by Steven A. Cerra’s Jazz Profiles blog, an important guidebook for me on this Trip).

Woods was a consummate professional, and Integrity reflects the quintet’s carefully curated repertoire, including Neal Hefti’s Repetition (see this YouTube video), Ellington’s Azure, Wayne Shorter’s Infant Eyes, and Randy Weston’s Little Niles, as well as numbers by Bud Powell, Sam Rivers, Charlie Mariano and Tom Garvin. No Harrell originals yet.

I know Michael and I talked once about Harrell. Michael had seen him at the Regattabar and was impressed, though based on an observation he made about Harrell’s stage presence, I concluded Michael didn’t know too much about him. I am sure Michael would have agreed that Harrell had the trumpet version of that note-for-note purposeful articulation he liked in his saxophone paragons.

A Rural Studio

In addition to his role as percussionist, Bill Goodwin functioned as Phil Woods’s record producer. The Quintet with Harrell had been playing for a year, so at the very end of 1984 Goodwin had the group hole up for two days in Bearsville, New York, a small hamlet outside of Woodstock, to lay down some tracks at Albert Grossman’s Bearsville Studios.

Goodwin says there was no particular theme in the twelve titles the band recorded over those two days, they were simply the Quintet’s current book. However, when it came time for Goodwin to select six tracks for Herb Wong and BlackHawk Records, Heaven (released in 1986) ended up having an Ellington flavor, beginning with the Ellington composition that is the title track, plus Ellington’s Azure and Dave Brubeck’s The Duke. Integrity had been recorded by a somewhat obscure Italian label, RED Records, so for some fans Heaven was their introduction to the new Quintet. (The 1994 Mosaic box set The Phil Woods Quartet/Quintet 20th Anniversary Set contains five other previously unheard tracks from the Bearsville sessions.)

Woods emphasizes that the numbers the Quintet records in the studio are not random. They have all been honed to a fine precision in live performances. Compare Azure and Sam Rivers’s 222 on Integrity and on Heaven. Performing live and recording in the studio are two entirely different undertakings. I like the two albums equally, but the band sounds crisper to me on Heaven. Also, there is no question by now, Harrell is a coequal horn. It is now Harrell taking the opening solo on 222. (I went back and checked: Of the eight tracks on Integrity, Woods takes the opening solo on five, Galper followed by Harrell on Repetition, Gilmore followed by Harrell on Little Niles, and Harrell only on Tom Garvin’s Mitch.) Whether in Italy or in Heaven, Azure is to die for.

By now Harrell is also composing for the band, and Heaven closes with his fiery original Occurrence. If I were hearing it for the first time as a Blindfold test, I would be wondering which Blue Note album it came from. It is described in the liner notes as “demanding, rhythmically and harmonically shifting.”

“Tom Harrell is a genius. He’s taken the compositional thing up another notch. Occurrence is a great example of it. It’s only middle period Harrell, but it holds up real well.”

Phil Woods, on the occasion of the 1996 re-release of Heaven

A Big City Studio

The 1980s was the decade of the compact disc. In June of 1986 at the Clinton Studios in New York the Quintet recorded Gratitude for Nippon Columbia’s new (1983) digital Japanese label Denon. It was considered a big deal that they packed eight tracks and seventy-one minutes of music into a single album.

日本 – Where some of the world’s biggest jazz fans are!

The band’s repertoire is again always interesting. Three of the eight tracks are in the bop/hard-bop space, beginning with the opening two, Oliver Nelson’s 111-44 (from Oliver Nelson’s 1961 straight ahead album with Eric Dolphy) and Hal Galper’s Another Jones. Each has an interesting arrangement. 111-44 begins conventionally with two-chorus solos by Woods and Harrell, but immediately following Harrell’s second chorus Woods kicks off a lengthy Woods-Harrell exchange of eights … then fours … then twos … then ones … then — with the rhythm section dropping out — dueling mayhem. Goodwin’s drum roll brings them back to a restatement of the theme, and another Goodwin drum roll kicks off Another Jones, which is arranged as a sequence of Woods and Harrell exchanges with the drums, plus drum solo, plus Galper solo. Goodwin is outstanding — is he the “other Jones”?

The sixth track returns to the bop/hard-bop space with Joe Roccisano’s Tenor of the Times. Woods and Harrell engage in an energetic zigzag voicing (to use a technical term) for a full minute and twenty seconds before a signature Woods assertion kicks off the solo sequence (Woods, Harrell, Galper). We said Harrell can play the s*** out of the trumpet; brother what a mother Woods is! The song ends with Woods and Harrell zigzagging again.

“Harrell’s lucid tone and nimble, carefully sifted lines are as piquant a contrast with Woods as one could wish, without creating any clashes of temperament.”

Cook & Morton (about Integrity, but equally applicable to Gratitude and all the Quintet recordings)
Woods’s, Harrell’s, and Galper’s (partial) solos on Tenor of the Times at an unspecified venue and date

Balancing the three bop/hard-bop tracks are three numbers in a mellow way. We know the band loved Ellington’s Azure, featuring Woods’s formidable clarinet, and on this album they play Bill Mays’s tribute to the Duke, My Azure, with Woods again on clarinet and Harrell on flugelhorn. My Azure is followed by Serenade in Blue. Glen Miller popularized Serenade in Blue, but surprise, surprise, I vastly prefer the Quintet’s Ellington-sounding version. The album closer is Ya Know, mellow, though, as Masamichi Okazaki’s liner notes point out, Woods’s solo intensifies towards the end. This is a Joe Emley composition for which I have not been able to find any history.

With the addition of Harrell, Goodwin had said in the liner notes for Heaven, the band had become “much more of an ensemble, like a small version of a big band, with brass and reeds, and much more of a writing medium.” Our two unaccounted-for tracks on Gratitude are Harrell originals. One, which is given the title track honors, is a song I have become addicted to and to which I have added myself as a third horn and gesticulator prancing around the house! (In a 1987 newspaper interview with UPI journalist Ken Franckling, Harrell said his girlfriend at the time wrote lyrics to Gratitude. To my knowledge, nothing more is known of either the lyrics or the girlfriend.)

Phil Woods’s passionate alto saxophone introduces Time’s Mirror. I would like to know the inspiration for the song and its name. This version of Time’s Mirror is one of Noah Baermen’s top ten Harrell tracks. (Barbara’s spontaneous reaction to Phil Woods’s intro when she first heard it: “film noir.”) With these albums my Trip just keeps getting better and better.

Dizzy Interlude

In mid-December 1986, the Quintet teamed up with Dizzy Gillespie at a recording studio in Holland. I have looked in the gift shop, but I can not find any information about the origin and circumstances of this session. Harrell grew up listening to Bird and Dizzy on San Francisco radio, and playing with Dizzy must have been quite a thrill. An album was not released until 1993, by the Dutch label Timeless, Dizzy Gillespie meets Phil Woods Quintet, most likely on the occasion of Dizzy’s passing in January of that year.

Responding once to perceived criticism about his sense of rhythm, Harrell said, “Dizzy Gillespie, the greatest trumpet player, admired my playing. That’s all I’ll ever need.”

From the opening track, Dizzy’s Oon-ga-wa, I know I am going to have fun, even though Dizzy’s chops are past their prime. Dig Dizzy and Tom’s back-to-back solos on Galper’s hard-boppish Loose Change, the always lovely Round Midnight, the trumpet duo on the break after Galper’s solo on Love for Sale (Dizzy can still handle the fast tempo), and the fun everyone has with Harrell’s Terrestris.

The Fujitsu-Concord Jazz Festival, Tokyo

The band recorded for Nippon Columbia, but better yet, why not go to Nippon?! As part of a Japanese tour, the Quintet played a matinee and an evening set at the Fujitsu-Concord jazz festival in Tokyo (emceed by Carl Jefferson, president of Concord Records) in November 1987. Concord immediately issued Bob Stew, and two years later another set of numbers from this performance, the 1989 album Bouquet. These are top-quality albums in every sense. Musically, of course. But they also have informative liner notes by two pros, Leonard Feather and Ira Gitler respectively; they each, while from the same concert, manage to have a distinct identity; and they have excellent sound quality — hearing them for the first time, I was immediately struck by the purity of each instrument’s sound.

“Tommy” was welcomed into a Quartet that was already family. Woods and Goodwin and Gilmore were neighbors in the Poconos/Delaware Water Gap region of Pennsylvania when they formed the Phil Woods Quartet. Woods was married to Goodwin’s sister Jill. Two of the numbers from the festival reflect this directly, Woods’s composition featuring Goodwin, Yes, There is A C.O.T.A. (Bop Stew), which refers to the annual Celebration of the Arts in the Delaware Water Gap, and Galper’s arrangement of Theme from Star Trek (Bouquet’s opener), a tribute to Jill as avid Trekkie.

A few degrees of separation: Woods-Goodwin-Gilmore, Pennsylvania Delaware Water Gap; Harrell, Manhattan; Me, Philadelphia

So Tom was welcomed into the family. On Henry Mancini’s Dreamsville (Bop Stew), which is a master class in the flugelhorn, Woods introduces Tom as “my worthy constituent.” That is a jazz insider’s joke. Bird famously introduced Salt Peanuts on the immortal Live At Massey Hall as a song “by my worthy constituent, Mr. Dizzy Gillespie.” Jazz aficionados have concocted all sorts of theories about that and the relation between Bird and Diz, but from Woods it is an unambiguous expression of affection and admiration. Speaking of master classes, Woods gives one for the clarinet on the Japan-appropriate Poor Butterfly.

So what I especially experience listening to these albums for the first time so many years later is this family feeling, and along with it the element of fun and, inextricably tied to these, the loving, thorough, and creative channeling of the jazz tradition. For fun, just take the titles. Galper’s Bop Stew. Woods’s cryptic HUK2E, which Woods gladly admits to Leonard Feather means … nothing! — it was inspired, he says, by the cryptic names avant-garde woodwindist Anthony Braxton sometimes gave to his compositions. Or Woods’s signature theme and set closer, How’s Your Mama?.

I also especially hear on these two albums how much Harrell and Woods channel their respective brother instrumentalists. From Woods’s horn especially I just hear screaming out Bird, Cannonball, Johnny Hodges, Ornette, Erik Dolphy.

Bop Stew also channels the jazz tradition in a sadder way. The veteran tenor saxophonist Al Cohn passed away three months after the Fujitsu-Concord festival, and the album is dedicated to his memory. From Anthony Braxton to Al Cohn — that also tells me something about the range of Woods’s own listening.

And then there are the quotes. On HUK2E check out the opening one in Woods’s leadoff solo and then especially the song fragments tacked on to the end of the arrangement (I pick up Bird, Jeannine, and Alfie among others). How’s Your Mama? is nothing but a potpourri (or stew) of quotes served up for jazz connoisseurs, ending (almost) with Salt Peanuts. (Woods of course had previously been married to Charlie Parker’s widow.) The always knowledgeable Japanese audience claps along. In an entirely different emotional register, I would not have gotten, on Woods’s searing ballad Mom (Bouquet is dedicated to Woods’s parents), the references to Johnny Mercer’s I Remember You (at 4:10, in the middle of Woods’s solo, if I am not mistaken) and Thad Jones’s A Child is Born (7:15), were it not for Ira Gitler’s notes. Woods’s intense crescendos on Mom (and earlier on Gratitude’s Time’s Mirror) bring to my mind Johnny Hodges’s rendition of Strayhorn’s Blood Count (in fact the composition Mom itself reminds me of Blood Count).

Harrell himself is not much of a quoter (I can’t think of one, in fact). That is certainly not because he has not absorbed the tradition deep into his marrow. I have read a lot of Blindfold tests over the years, but I cannot think of anyone with Harrell’s remarkable recall of particulars — albums, tracks, harmonies, Occurrences, conversations, lore. He also has a hypersensitive capacity for aural association. This from an interview with Bill Milkowski is characteristic: “I was listening to water pouring from a faucet today in a stainless steel sink, and it sounded really similar…maybe this is crazy…but it reminded me of a chord Stravinsky used in ‘The Rite Of Spring’, the E major triad with the E flat 7th in the ‘Dance Of The Adolescents.’”

Gitler calls Bouquet “a veritable nosegay of multihued material, moods and tempi.” The album’s rather literal cover art in fact depicts a multihued bouquet stuffed in the alto saxophone’s bell qua vase. The title song, Harrell’s only composition on these two albums, is a simple (ABA/8-8-8) theme saying thank you to Woods and the band. I mentioned the purity of each instrument’s sound on these albums. Listen to the beginning of Harrell’s solo on Bouquet. Wow. Woods and Galper also pour themselves into their solos. Galper’s Tune of the Unknown Samba follows. This was written by Galper but given its name by humorist-in-chief Woods. Compared to Bouquet it has a quicker, feel-yourself-swept-about-the-dance-floor tempo, but in its own way it also has a distinctively leisurely pace, at least to my ears. Tom’s solo again has a lovely intro. Tom takes the first solo on Willow Weep For Me. Woods’s arrangement of this Ann Ronnell classic goes back to his 1974 album Musique du Bois and employs an All Blues motif. Who’d a thunk it. This rousing number is the last flower in the nosegay.

The Little Big Band

In the interim between the Bob Stew and Bouquet releases, Concord Records recorded and released Evolution (1988). Billed as ‘Phil Woods’ Little Big Band,’ it added Hal Crook on trombone, Nick Brignola on baritone saxophone (featured on Song for Sisyphus, one of five Woods originals), and Nelson Hill on tenor sax.

Of course with the expanded ensemble Woods and Harrell must share the spotlight, but Harrell gets his solo opportunities, and naturally his flugelhorn is featured on Miles Ahead, which sounds very much like the Miles Davis-Gil Evans original. Unfortunately the album gives no arrangement credits, but it nevertheless has interesting liner notes by Steely Dan’s Donald Fagen.

“Idiomatic phrases from the whole of jazz history fly by so rapidly that an intense listener risks acute chronosthesia. A phantom busload of jazz giants and a thousand nights on the bandstand are all in that horn somewhere.”

Donald Fagen (speaking of Woods)

I spoke about the Quintet channeling jazz history. Fagen puts it so much more interestingly! Fagen also writes about the “passive-aggressive” quality of Woods’s earlier work, “relaxed and swung way back behind the beat but threatening to bopify in your face at any time.” As Fagen sees it, this quality matures in the 80s but remains foundational in Woods’s playing. These qualities — chronosthesia-inducing quoting and “passive-aggressive” intensity — are Woods’s and not Harrell’s. We have already said that Harrell is not a quoter and earlier on this Trip we found Harrell’s style notable for its flow through (as Ben Ratliff so much more interestingly put it, “[Harrell] keeps you on the hook, but doesn’t shout, doesn’t stop the clock”). As Cook & Morton put it in the Penguin Guide, “Harrell’s lucid tone and nimble, carefully sifted lines are as piquant a contrast with Woods as one could wish, without creating any clashes of temperament.” (Fagen, Ratliff, Cook & Morton — I too am a quoter!)

As If I Had Been There

Luckily for me on my Trip, the museum in Harrell-land has some video. You go into a booth, pull the curtain, touch the screen, and voilà, you are transported back to the twentieth century. There we can see the Quintet in two 1988 live performances in Europe, April in Barcelona and October in Hamburg.


The set in Hamburg ends with a guest appearance by Freddie Hubbard, who plays Joy Spring with the rhythm section, Woods and Harrell sitting out.

Hubbard’s appearance makes for an inevitable comparison. On stage Harrell is statuesque when playing, head bowed, expressionless and motionless when not. By contrast, Hubbard, like Woods, is the showman. Hubbard’s playing is more pyrotechnics and vertical, Harrell’s more evolved and horizontal. Both look mighty dapper in their double-breasted suits.

(The numbers on the Barcelona tape are (1) Journey To The Center (2) Bradley’s Revenge (3) Autumn Nocturne (4) Weaver (5) Repetition (6) The Touch of Your Lips [featuring Harrell’s flugelhorn]. The tape abruptly ends during Gilmore’s solo. The numbers on the Hamburg tape are (1) Journey To The Center (2) Weaver (3) Gotham Serenade [a Galper ballad] (4) Tenor of the Times (5) Joy Spring with Hubbard.)

A Time for Moving On, But Not for Goodbyes

All good things come to an end, and five years is a relatively long life for a jazz combo. Harrell left the Quintet in 1989. Concord’s last documentation of this glorious congregation is the April 1989 studio recording Flash.

Trombonist Hal Crook plays on the last four tracks and goes on to replace Harrell in the Quintet.

As previously noted about Gratitude, the Quintet’s studio sessions typically played their current book as perfected in live performances, and this can be seen comparing Flash with the preceding year’s Barcelona and Hamburg concerts. The first five tracks are the Quintet without Crook. They consist of three Harrell compositions — Journey To The Center, Weaver, and Rado –, Galper’s infectious Dr. Dunk, and the standard Autumn Nocturne. The album and both the Barcelona and the Hamburg concerts kick off with Journey To The Center, except that in the studio session Harrell gets the opening solo. The Hamburg concert and the album both follow with Weaver, which is the fourth number at Barcelona, but again the difference is that in the studio version Harrell gets the opening solo. Again Harrell’s flugelhorn leads off Autumn Nocturne on both the Barcelona tape and the album. (W. Royal Stokes obviously had better ears for the flugelhorn than I do. His liner notes for Flash call attention to Harrell’s “half valve mastery” in the unison passages with Woods on Autumn Nocturne, but though I know what that means, I’m not hearing it.)

The final four tracks add Crook. Three are Tom Garvin compositions, the high-speed title track, the catchy Bradley’s Revenge (also performed in Barcelona), and Ebullition, featuring Steve Gilmore’s bass. The Fourth is Miserlou, sounding exotic and somewhat Ellingtonish as played with Crook’s muted trombone, Woods’s clarinet, and Goodwin’s tom toms. It is, yes, the same Dick Dale surfer hit later popularized by the movie Pulp Fiction.

A brilliant chapter in the history of jazz

I wasn’t there for it in the 80s, but I am delighted to have gotten to see and hear the Phil Woods Quintet with Harrell on this Trip. Flash is the final and again outstanding album by the Quartet as augmented by the man Phil Woods frequently and dead-seriously called a “genius.” As suggested by Cook & Morton and by Harrell himself, the Quintet provided Harrell a context and a focus after the eclecticism of his previous years, and we might add a reliable paycheck, the warmth of a musical family, and the worldwide exposure and stature that came with being a coequal horn player with Phil Woods.

But Tom had already started the next stage in his career. The liner notes for Flash specify that he appears courtesy of Contemporary Records.

Though Harrell’s musical activity during the Phil Woods years was not at all limited to the Quintet! … to be continued.

Published by Randy Gibbons

I am retired. I have several strong interests, in particular classical studies (Greek and Latin); a lifelong passion for music, especially jazz; and more recently, dabbling in philosophy. For more information about me, click on About Me.

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