Friday, November 18, 2011

And Where Do You “Where To?”: GRAMMY-nominated Saxophonist Mike Phillips

If the name doesn’t immediately ring a bell, perhaps the artists he’s collaborated and performed with do: Brian McKnight, Mariah Carey, Notorious B.I.G., The Floacist, Babyface,  and the list goes on…

Mike Phillips is one of the smoothest jazz saxophonist out there, lending his musical prowess to the songs we love, like Jill Scott’s “The Way (Live)” and touring with legends like Stevie Wonder.

And of course, he’s assuredly proved that he can pull his weight on his own; he’s put out three successful CDs in the past nine years and he’s exclusively played for high-profile icons such as President Bill Clinton, megastar Oprah and South African President Nelson Mandela.

This past summer I had a chance to interview him before his incredible performance at Arts Brookfield’s 4th Annual “Summer on the Plaza” concert series in July. 

I was stoked for several reasons:

Number one, I was excited to finally meet him. Back in my good ole college days, I interned at his record label, Hidden Beach Recordings, where his face would stare back at me from the countless CDs that I’d file away in the storage closet or send out in press packets.

Number two, I was delighted to have another opportunity to hear him perform…this time for me, legitimately. Again, when I was a mischievous college kid, a few friends and I snuck into the NAACP Awards after-party. It took some time for us to strategize that we’d run through the kitchen and slickly sneak in through the black curtains, so that by the time we found our way inside the packed affair, Phillips was just ending his onstage solo.

And number three, I was curious to hear about what he had in store for the future. After releasing his third CD MP3 last year, would he be touring? Doing more shows? Headed back to the studio for yet another project?

From a surprising stellar performance to learning about his exciting new ventures, I got to hear, watch and learn more about Phillips. So let me stop rambling on and let you get to the good stuff. Here’s what he had to say – read on!

Miss Wilson: How would you describe your music?
Mike Phillips: I would describe the music as a fast-forward into where the future could be with the respect and infrastructure of where we are now, which is hip-hop, but also with the infrastructure of the past – of Dizzy [Gillespie], Ornette Coleman, Farrell Sanders, Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington.

I consider myself a hybrid because as much as I am into hip-hop, I’m into the history of jazz and even the infrastructure of everything and how it started. It was us getting our behinds whipped in slavery, which started the whole movement of the Negro spiritual. You had two options to go: God is gonna make a way, or I’m tired of getting whipped, which was the gospel or the blues [respectively]. With that in mind, I’m just not playing just to play – I’m a musician that’s sensitive to the reasons why the music exists, the history and digging into it to be effective.

Miss Wilson: You’re going to be performing today, so how do you usually prepare for a performance? Do you have any special rituals that you do?
Mike Phillips: No. The only thing that I would do is when I’m sound-checking, I’m feeling the spirit of where the musicians are, what their skill set is and how they’re feeling. And then when you combine that with the crowd and what’s happening, you come up with a set list. I don’t have a planned set at all.

Miss Wilson: Is that challenging?
Mike Phillips: It’s challenging when you have musicians that can’t follow you. But these guys? I’m cool.

Miss Wilson: How do crowds affect your performances, if at all?

Mike Phillips: It’s like a 180. They give it to you, then it comes back. They give it back to you.

And then also, you can’t be somewhat affected by them because some people absorb the music differently. You have people that, they absorb the music, but they don’t get caught up in the kinetic energy of the appreciation of it, so that could be a misread. You could have somebody sitting down like [he stops talking, crosses his arms across his body and simply stares straight ahead for a moment before resuming talking] and just because they’re not going like that [now he vigorously waves his hands above his head], they’re still enjoying the music immensely. That’s one of the things I’ve come to understand – that people absorb the music very differently from others.

Miss Wilson: What about any memorable performances – who has been a favorite artist to perform with?
Mike Phillips: I would say it’s between Stevie [Wonder] and Prince. Those are my most memorable artists. Obviously because of who they are, but also because of how intense their music is. They challenge you, even in their songs.

Miss Wilson: You performed their songs?
Mike Phillips: I performed with them onstage. I toured with both. So you’re entrenched in history. When they talk, you listen. When they play, you understand. And there’s a quote that says: you can only be a great chief if one day you’re a great Indian under a great chief. So, there’s no way around it. You have to learn when you’re with them.

Miss Wilson: What’s a lesson from both of them that you’ve taken with you?
Mike Phillips: Stevie, I’d say one of the lessons I learned from him is being prepared. He hears everything. You’re not gonna come unprepared or think that you’re gift is going to be a crutch to you not knowing what you’re supposed to be doing.

Prince, is be sensitive to how the music feels. What you feel is everything. It’s a constant absorption; what’s happening, what he feels. With Prince there’s a lot of emotional lessons that you learn with playing and being connected.

Miss Wilson: So what do you usually do after a performance? Do you chill, or do you go out?
Mike Phillips: I chill out. Some people say that I’m an introvert, but I’m really not. After I’m finished, I feel that my gift is – I’m done. Some people have different purposes in life. I think after I give my all on the stage, it’s like, what else can I do? I re-up and I get replenished before the next moment that I have to create that’s God-given.

Miss Wilson: Where is your favorite city to perform in, if you have one?
Mike Phillips: New York, because of the life. The life there – you can wake up at 2’o’clock in the morning and find somewhere. Music, life and art is [sic] constant there for some reason that I don’t understand. It’s constant. So as an artist, running to Brooklyn and seeing the countless amount of art galleries, or running to Manhattan and seeing them jamming at three ‘o’ clock, four ‘o’ clock, or going to Café Wha? and they’re getting it in until like four, five. It’s pretty amazing.

Miss Wilson: And you’re from New York, so how does the whole nightlife scene compare to Los Angeles’ nightlife scene?
Mike Phillips: Los Angeles…it’s a different culture in the presentation of how things are. It’s top-notch. If the club is sexy in Los Angeles, it really is sexy. New York sexy can be a little gritty. But they’re two different levels of what the expectations are. People move around in New York. It’s very busy. They’re very adamant. LA is laid back. New York, they’re very adamant, and they don’t really care. And then that shows in the grittiness of what you do in New York.

It’s two different attitudes. Both are very good. Because to get over in life, you’re gonna have to have some balls. You’re gonna have to be able to man up. But then there are times that you just gotta chill out – it ain’t even that serious – and that’s what LA is. So as a New Yorker, when it’s LA time, it takes the edge off of me. It’s like, look, I’m in the sun, it’s breezy, it’s 86 degrees, what else can you ask for?

Miss Wilson: Do you have a favorite place to hang out in LA, whether that’s a restaurant or even outdoors?
Mike Phillips: Venice. And if it’s an eating spot, The Cheesecake Factory.

Miss Wilson: Are you hanging anywhere specifically this weekend since you’re here?
Mike Phillips: Well, I’ll tell you what. I’ll hang out in my hotel lobby. The JW Marriott is pretty banging. I ain’t gonna lie to you.

Miss Wilson: Have you been to the rooftop pool?
Mike Phillips: It’s nuts.

Miss Wilson: I agree. And are there any upcoming projects that we should know about, such as the Michael Jackson Immortal Tour or your newest CD?
Mike Phillips: MP3 came out last year and it debuted at #1 on the iTunes chart. So that’s out and my time now will be just about the Immortal Tour, getting it up and running. I’m really, really curious to see how this is going to go, because they are really putting together a show.

Miss Wilson: Can you give us a sneak peak?
Mike Phillips: I can’t do that, but all I can say is it’s one of the most ambitious shows that Cirque [de Soleil] has put together so far, and with that in mind, the anticipation is building, and it’s gonna be crazy. It’s gonna be nuts.

Miss Wilson: And it’ll be in LA?
Mike Phillips: Right.

Miss Wilson: Well thank you so much for your time. I’m excited to see that, and also the show tonight.
Mike Phillips: Thank you.

For more information visit

Also, check out a the video clips from his performance! 
One features a candid revelation about working with Prince, and another features one of his solo performances.

*Photos Courtesy of Tulani Watkins

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