Jazz bassist Paul Thompson recounts celebrated alto saxophonist Phil Woods’ final show | Local Beat | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

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Jazz bassist Paul Thompson recounts celebrated alto saxophonist Phil Woods’ final show

“I thought, ‘Are these symphony guys going to be able to wing it?’”

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On Sept. 4, alto saxophonist Phil Woods had one song left in the set at Manchester Craftsmen’s Guild. Before he played it, he asked the audience whether they’d mind if he told some stories. Armed with some notes, he ran through his 70-year career in music, starting with the time he met Charlie Parker — whom this performance was celebrating with a recreation of the Charlie Parker With Strings recordings — who offered the young musician a piece of pie backstage. Bassist Paul Thompson, part of the ensemble that accompanied Woods, was in heaven. His stories were “just as meaningful as the music he played, in my opinion,” he says. “It was just coming out in a different way — with words instead of notes.”

Then Woods shocked everyone in the room. He announced that, after the last song, he was retiring from music for good. Thompson, onstage with Alton Merrell (piano), Tom Wendt (drums) and members of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra, said no one knew about the retirement prior to the show. If Woods’ health was poor, it didn’t hurt the performance. “They wheeled him out, and he had a huge oxygen tank. But when he started playing, it was the greatest sound,” Thompson says. “He played three notes and Alton [said], ‘Oh my god.’”

Woods still possessed a jazz musician’s sense of spontaneity, too. In the middle of the final piece, “Rocker,” he decided that it needed a bass solo. “During the trumpet solo, he’s pantomiming like he’s playing the bass, and pointing at me,” Thompson says. “I thought, ‘Are these symphony guys going to be able to wing it?’ Sure enough, he pointed at me again, so I started to solo. He was talking to the conductor, so the string players knew to wait.”

While the evening was memorable enough, it took an even deeper meaning a few weeks later: Woods, 83, died Sept. 29, from the effects of emphysema. “It was incredible to be with the source code onstage. He was the source code,” Thompson says. “I’m still absorbing the whole magnitude of it.”


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