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Jay Phelps: Swing Is The New Avant-Garde

By Published: November 16, 2010
The album also contains some covers. "Blue and Sentimental" is a Count Basie tune that features a beautiful string arrangement—Phelps' first. "I studied arranging at Trinity, but this is the first time I did one for real, conducted and so on. It was a nice little test for myself." There is also a short piece by Tchaikovsky, "Semplice," that Phelps has loved since childhood: "I had it on CD, my first classical CD, when I was 12 years old. It traveled with me to London, and every time I've moved—16 times since I came to London—the CD popped up. I've always loved the second movement, a great little waltz, and I thought it would sound good as a quintet with bass clarinet. It would give it a nice somber feel. I tried to give it an Ellingtonian feel."



Form left: Jay Phelps, Dennis Rollins

The third cover is "Out of the Blue," credited on the album to saxophonist Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
Jackie McLean
1932 - 2006
sax, alto
, although elsewhere Miles Davis is given the credit. It's a tune that's perhaps more in keeping with Phelps' link to Davis, as McLean and Davis recorded it together on Dig (Prestige, 1951). That version is, in fact, the one that Phelps first heard: "Yeah, that's the one. There are a few different takes and a few different versions. It's based on the chord progression from 'Get Happy.'" The link is made explicit on Phelps' version with vocalist Michael Mwenso, who sings the "Get Happy" lyric, and pianist Jonathan Gee, who builds phrases from the tune into his own playing. "I just love that melody and the way in which Michael and I interplay on it."

Mwenso is a strong presence on the album and has a natural ability to sound as if he's creating lyrics on the spot, but how much of the lyrics on Jay Walkin', if any, were his creation? "The lyrics to 'I Love My Mama' are all mine; the rest of it is Michael improvising, including 'Out of the Blue.' Michael's enthusiasm is what we need, as listeners. To have Michael come on board, especially on live gigs, allows the band to free up and do other things. For example, if I choose to play something a bit different, a bit more contemporary, it won't sound so strange to the ear because it's padded by Michael's approach to the music."

The suggestion that "Jay Walkin'" sounds very English, reminiscent of the sort of material that Sir John Dankworth
John Dankworth
John Dankworth
1927 - 2010
saxophone
was creating in the late '50s or early '60s—takes Phelps aback at first. "English? Well, you're not wrong. Anything that John Dankworth was creating in the '60s is definitely relevant to what I'm trying to do. That tune, for me, was a homage to a whole bunch of things. Even the intro was ripped from a Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
Clifford Brown
1930 - 1956
trumpet
and Max Roach
Max Roach
Max Roach
1925 - 2007
drums
thing. So it's an homage to a few different things. It has a 'Groovin' High,' Dizzy-style beginning. There are a few things that I wanted to incorporate on this album: African, Afro-Cuban, and so on. It's the whole spectrum of my life and who I am."

Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
Herbie Hancock
b.1940
piano
with Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
Dexter Gordon
1923 - 1990
sax, tenor
, for example—so they had that blend of generations in the sound. You get a certain fire out of the younger guys and a maturity from the older guys, and that blend turns into a great musical outcome. And it's great to learn from the elder statesmen—I'm always one for learning from my elders, and with these gentlemen I feel that I can. I've done the hip young band thing; now's the time to try something a little different."

For the immediate future, promoting the new album takes priority, but Phelps is already thinking ahead, planning his next steps with the band. "The plan is to be a working unit on the road. Me being Canadian, I plan to try and grasp some contacts and get out to Canada and do a few tours there as well as Europe."

There's one more plan that Phelps hopes to bring to fruition: "I want to start a big band. I have a plan that hopefully can work. I want to get four different venues in London and put on a dinner dance—once a month in each place—with food, drinks and dancing to big band music from the root, like Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
Duke Ellington
1899 - 1974
piano
and Basie. This is a chance for me to learn about the music and to give the London public a change from the club scene." The London public would be missing a treat if they didn't take the chance, too.

Selected Discography

Jay Phelps, Jay Walkin' (Specific Jazz, 2010)

Ska Cubano, Mambo Ska (Casinosounds, 2010)

Courtney Pine, Transition In Tradition (Destin-E Records, 2009)

Jazz Warriors, Afropeans (Destin-E Records, 2008)

Empirical, Empirical (Destin-E Records, 2007)

Dennis Rollins' Badbone & Co, Big Night Out (Raestar Records, 2006)

Photo Credits

Page 1: Courtesy of Jay Phelps

Pages 2, 3: Bruce Lindsay


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