Jay Phelps: Swing Is The New Avant-Garde
Phelps appeared on Empirical's eponymous debut album (Destin-E Records, 2007). Then he and keyboard player Kit Downes left the band at the same time, at the end of 2008. Was this simply a coincidence, or did they leave for related reasons? "We left separately; it just happened to be at the same time." The band was poised for great success at the time, so leaving must have been based on strong reasons. Phelps didn't leave to follow a specific path, however: "I didn't leave to do my own thing. In fact, it's taken nearly two years for me to do my own thing. I left to get more education about certain musical things that I knew I wasn't going to get with Empirical. We were going in a musical direction based more on the contemporary scene. Some of the stuff I was trying to do was still in the tradition of jazz music and still is. I feel that my own musical journey is going to take a long time, and I felt that I needed further education within the tradition of the music. I wasn't getting that in Empirical, which was taking a more improvisational approach rather than learning a set of standards and basing my playing on that."
Phelps clearly felt strongly about his need to explore and become skilled in the jazz tradition. He clearly still feels that way too. On his website is the slogan which is used for the title of this interview: "Swing is the new avant-garde.
"I got back from New York last weekI was playing at Dizzy's Club at Jazz at Lincoln Centerand I found that players of my generation are really not playing swing. Now, I grew up loving Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles Davisloving that music. It's part of what I want to incorporate in my music. I don't see it as old-fashioned. When I listen to it, I think it's the most modern shit you're hearing. So that's why I say that swing is the new avant-garde, because not many people my age are doing that."
Phelps has credited Davis' Kind Of Blue (Columbia, 1959) as the pivotal moment in his love of jazz. Was it really so important, so crucial? "Yes, it was the pivotal moment. I loved everything about the sound of it. I was a kid of the hip-hop generation: I was listening to hip-hop all the time, big speakers in my room blasting it out. My mother must have wanted to kill me. Now, when I wanted to listen to that albumand it was an album, a vinyl recordI would have to go upstairs, because I didn't have a turntable. The record player upstairs was part of an older stereo system that had a different vibe to my stuff. The clarity and the difference of tonality set it off for me within this album. It struck a chord with me."
Phelps' introduction to jazz was partly by luck, partly through the support of his mother, who paid for his trumpet lessons, and partly through Phelps' high school, Semiahmoo High School in Vancouver. "My mom was always on my case about practicing, 'cause she was paying for the lessons. But I also went to a great high school. I started going to its after school classes, its big band, a year before I enrolled there. Two teachers, David Prosnick and Kevin Lee, they were amazing teachers, and the school won many music awards. So it was a good place to be, and through that school and my mother and my love for the music, it just grew and grew and grew."
Phelps' debut album as leader, Jay Walkin', was recorded when Phelps was 28. This still makes him a young man, but in contemporary jazz terms it almost makes him an unusually old debutant, as many jazz players are leading recordings in their early 20s or even in their late teens. Phelps laughs upon hearing this. While he agrees, it's clear that he waited until he felt the time was right and until he had a body of strong compositions. His original tunes on Jay Walkin' have, in some cases, been around for years. "Yeah, they do vary in terms of when I wrote them. 'Jay Walkin' happened just a few weeks before the recording session, and I wrote it really quickly. It's kinda the quickest tune I ever wrote. 'I Love my Mama' was based on a motif I wrote a while ago. I actually wrote a Christmas song based on the motif something about Santa. But I eventually changed it to 'I Love my Mama,' probably over the last two years. 'Dose of Aladine' is old! I wrote it when I was about 20. 'Six Degrees of Separation' is another old oneI was about 19 or 20but I revamped it and rearranged it more recently."