Mike Phillips: a philosophical saxophonist

 Mike Phillips, who has been called by many one of the best saxophonists in the world, is more than just a musical genius: his thoughts about music, his inspirations and influences and the effect that music can have on the lives of youths makes him a visionary.
   Phillips returned to Cayman for his third Jazz Fest gig this year, performing on Friday night at Camana Bay. Hearing the suggestion that Cayman is fortunate to have him return, he responded with his usual humility.
   “It’s rare, because usually exclusive islands like this are really picky on who they bring back. This is an honour,” he says. “…[I]t’s an absolute honour and a testament to how the music connects – not just with people who travel to here to listen to it but the people locally as well. I’m happy.”
   Phillips is happy, that much is evident after talking with him for just a few minutes. Effusive in his passion for his craft and deeply pensive about the passing on of the musical baton, as he calls it, Phillips is not one who will settle with the current credits he has to his name: working with Teddy Riley, performing with Prince, Bryan McKnight, Babyface, Stevie Wonder (who has written a song just for him to record for the saxophonist’s next album) and with television credits that include shows like The David Letterman Show and Saturday Night Live.
   He explains that the jazz industry is quite relaxed about releasing albums, saying “in the world of jazz, you can spread your content a little bit further apart because the mainstay of why you’re successful is absolutely about playing.”
   For this reason, once his new album MP3 (a clever play on words regarding the technological advances of music, his initials and the fact that the album will be his third), is released in 2010, Phillips will have put out three albums in the past 10 years, an output that seems remarkably low in R’n’B terms but which is, in the field of jazz, more than sufficient.
   “When I have the content, I like to spread [it], I don’t like to really indulge in an album a year because you want to consolidate your best content,” he explains.
   MP3 is about 70 per cent done, he added, and will include around 11 tracks. Although it is common for instrumentalists to feature vocalists and collaborators on their records, this is something that after much consideration, Phillips is avoiding with this album.
   “Sometimes records get so diluted – you have 11 [songs] and maybe nine of them are with guests. And then it becomes a smorgasbord of concept and compilation, instead of people really enjoying the diverse aspects of [your music],” he says. “I’ll have some singing and playing but I am limiting the featured [artists] because I have a lot to say musically.”
   The New Yorker is not just a saxophonist. He includes some rapping on his record, and indeed he brought some to his performance at Friday night’s Jazz Fest at Camana Bay, reflecting his hip hop influences. These influences culminated in a project titled Unrapped, which involved him putting out six volumes of the unique sound of this jazz-hip hop hybrid and as a result, widening the demographic for jazz, something he considers one of his biggest accomplishments.
   “I remember getting this email, and it [was] pretty profound,” he said. “A father said it was the first time [him] and his son sat down to the dinner table and actually listened to the same thing. [T]hat email was huge and… showed me that [the Unrapped project] worked.”
   The rationale behind the project was the distaste Phillips has for some of the content in today’s hip hop music.
   “Hip hop is very heavy in freedom of speech,” Phillips says. “[S]ome of those things don’t resonate with my soul too well – language, subject matter – so what we decided to do is we took the crazy songs where the beats are nic… took off all those words and salacious messages and replaced it with real music.”
   Educating kids in the music of yesteryear is part of the answer to solving the problem with troubled youths today, he suggests.
   “Sonny Rollins, Ornette Coleman … Duke Ellington – you can’t throw that [music] down their throats like that… there has to be projects that are out there that create the musical bridge between now and yesterday,” he says.
   The six volumes of Unrapped have sold more than 500,000 copies, so the message may just be getting through, and countering the effects of modern music which, more often than not, is made to work “for the moment”, Phillips says.
   All about the youth
   The saxophonist does not just record tunes. While on island for Jazz Fest he paid a visit to students at John Gray High School to talk to them about music and the impact it can have on young lives. Phillips himself came from what he calls a “raw” background of music, with little formal training and much more learning ‘on-the-go’, performing in clubs as a teenager.
   I’m really big on making sure that music is in the schools at an early age because these kids have to be able to not be robots and have a creative platform. Music is one of the only things that can fight what’s happening in society right now,” he says.
   His own collaborations have influenced his talent significantly.
   “One of my favourite quotes is ‘you cannot be a great chief unless you are a great Indian under a great chief.’ Being influenced by the aspects of art means you almost have to be a servant to it, which means when you play for someone you learn what they want and then you execute,” he says. “When I’m on stage with Prince I’m a servant. … But in conjunction with being a servant and understanding what they want musically I’m learning at the same time. So, I can’t be a great chief on the stage …  if I wasn’t a servant [first].”
   Coming to Cayman
   Hearing about Jazz Fest on BET was what first brought him to the Cayman stage – that, and a little jingle penned by local band Hi Tide which accompanies the Cayman Islands’ television ads in the US.
   “One of the biggest things is that I really like your ad – the melody of the Cayman Islands – I’m walking down the street and I’m a musically-driven [person], I see big city buildings and then all of a sudden I hear “Cayman Islands”…!”