A Conversation with Jack Phillips

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A Conversation with Jack Phillips

November 8, 2017

By Victoria Ordin for Cabaret Scenes

As Jack Phillips prepares for his upcoming show at NYC’s The Triad, our Victoria Ordin sat down with him to discuss Café Nights in New York.

Victoria Ordin: We’re here to discuss your upcoming show Café Nights in New York at The Triad, the temporary home of the Metropolitan Room. But you recently released your fourth studio album, Down in the Jungle Room. What made you decide to perform material from the prior album, which pays homage to Bobby Short and his era?

Jack Phillips: Originally, I had the idea of creating an album of both blues and jazz, but it was Eddy Davis (Woody Allen’s band leader), my producer and song collaborator, who suggested that we split the idea into two albums. The jazz album came out first and we just released the blues album. I tried playing both forms live once at The Duplex, but, as Eddy pointed out, I think they work better as separate shows. I just love the material in the Café Nights show and, of course, the opportunity to work with my pianist and musical director, Conal Fowkes. He and Debby Kennedy on string bass perform with Davis and Allen every Monday night at the Café Carlyle.
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Years ago, Bobby Short introduced me to his drummer, Klaus Suonsaari, and we’ve been friends now for nearly 20 years.

He joins me on drums. I love this show because it incorporates both well-known standards about New York and my own original standards as well.

Voctoria: You’ve said before that your parents were classical music buffs, that you studied piano from an early age, and fell in love with pop music when you first heard Elton John, whose Greatest Hits was your introduction to pop music. When did you begin to write songs?

Jack: Yes, my mother and both grandmothers were pianists. We had two Yamaha grand pianos in the house where I grew up in Fresno, CA. My father didn’t play and had no interest whatsoever in rock music or pop music. He listened strictly to classical music.

We went to philharmonic concerts frequently. Growing up in that environment, and taking piano lessons as a kid, I had no exposure to rock music or pop music. A 1975 cover story in Time magazine about a flamboyant pianist changed everything. I was the only boy I knew at school who took piano lessons, which therefore didn’t feel like a very cool thing to do. The story about Elton made playing the piano seem incredibly cool. For a number of years, I simply enjoyed his artistry and songwriting. It really wasn’t until I was in high school that I started experimenting with creating my own music.

Victoria: Café Nights in New York is quite a departure in genre from your prior release, To Whom It May Concern. What was it like to write songs in the tradition of the Great American Songbook?

Jack: Very different. First of all, I had never written lyrics before, but I knew what kind of songs I wanted to write and what themes I wanted to explore. I either had full lyrics or partial lyrics for all of the songs before I started.

Because I’m not a jazz pianist, I needed help in composing the music, though I had definite ideas about some of the melody lines. Collaborating with Conal Fowkes, the melodies and the song style took shape for about half of the songs on the album. The other half of the songs feature my words set to music by Eddy Davis, trained in music composition, and he brought to the table melodies that I probably could not have conceived, but which complemented mine well. Not only was the experience of writing this material different, it was very fast. I was working with pros and we knew what we wanted to do.

Victoria: How did you choose the musicians for Café Nights in New York: Conal Fowkes, Debby Kennedy, and Klaus Suonsaari?

Jack: From many nights spent in the company of friends at the Café Carlyle! I got to know Eddy, Conal, and Debby as they all perform regularly with Woody. I saw them all perform at The Royal Albert Hall this past summer and, in prior years, I’ve even seen them at the fabulously reconstructed Teatro la Fenice in Venice and at Auditorium in Rome. I met Klaus nearly 20 years ago. He was Bobby’s drummer for 15 years.

Victoria: Your love for different styles of music comes through in the new album. Do you feel you write better, or deeper, songs in one genre by pushing yourself to write in others?

Jack: I think that performing live has made me a better musician and a better songwriter. It was a thrill to work on Down in the Jungle Room with that caliber of musicians. We recorded everything on the album in one take—a stark contrast to my earlier albums when everything was done on a computer and we’d agonize forever about how something should sound. I like changing styles simply for diversity. I’d hate to do the same thing over and over.

Victoria: The musicians who play on Down in the Jungle Room include the magnificent Sean Harkness and Caleb Quayle on electric guitar. How did you meet Sean and Caleb, and how did that collaboration come about?

Jack: I met Sean when I was preparing my pop/rock show at the Metropolitan Room in 2010. I played the entirety of my early album, To Whom It May Concern. Sean was brilliant to work with. We’ve since collaborated on a number of projects and on the new album he plays acoustic guitar. Caleb is best known for helping to discover Elton John. In the late 1960s in London, he was working for The Beatles’ publisher who had set up a small recording studio at the office for songwriters. One of those writers was Elton and it was Caleb and the publisher who launched Elton’s career. Caleb is an incredible guitar player—everyone knows his guitar sound on the early Elton albums.

About 15 years ago I met someone who was collaborating with Caleb on his book A Voice Louder Than Rock ‘n’ Roll and he asked me if I would take a look at the draft. I did, but at that point I’d not met Caleb. Later, we began corresponding and, as I was formulating plans for this new album, Caleb came to mind as the perfect guitarist for a blues record.
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I asked if he would do it and he said yes. I flew out to Burbank, where I met him for the first time, and he added guitars to my tracks. Our first real-life meeting was the day we recorded! I have enormous respect for Caleb as a musician — but also for who he is as a person. A tremendous individual.

Victoria: Do you plan to do a show based on the new album?

Jack: We did it two years ago, and some of the live material appears on the album. I was very fortunate to be able to get Caleb to come out to New York where we performed the album at The Duplex. I’m sure that at future pop rock shows I’ll incorporate some of the material again. “No More Waitin’” is just a really fun song to perform, whether it’s solo at the piano or with a full band.

JACK PHILLIPS is appearing at The Triad (158 West 72nd Street) on Saturday, November 18 at 7:oo PM.  Tickets:  tinyurl.com/JackPhillips