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Jay Phelps: Swing Is The New Avant-Garde

Bruce Lindsay By

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At the age of 28, trumpeter Jay Phelps already has a broad range of musical experiences under his belt, including co-founding the award-winning jazz group Empirical. Releasing his debut album as a leader, Jay Walkin' (Specific Records, 2010), seems like a natural next step. But Phelps is clearly not a man to be rushed. The album title is not just a pun; it also reflects Phelps' considered and studious approach to his own personal musical development. He's a bright, engaging instrumentalist who is constantly searching for more and more musical experiences to help in his development as a player. And he's strong-willed and independent enough to know how to pace it.

Of course, not everything can be planned for, and Phelps knows when to act on an opportunity, which is how he found himself involved in a major project by the internationally renowned British photographer Rankin, in mid-2010. Phelps was one of six young artists selected for the project. Their portraits were exhibited not in a gallery but on advertising billboards in major British cities. As Phelps explains, "The Rankin experience was nice. I have a friend who knows a casting agent, and that's how I got the gig. It was an early morning thing, and I just had to do what I do, only this time it was down a £30,000 lens. Rankin was cool, nice and easy to work with. Considering the fact that jazz doesn't really get much exposure in the real world, any form of publicity outside the jazz world is great. I don't exactly know what kind of an impact the photo has had on me now, but I do think it will help in my future."

That future looks bright for the Canadian-born musician who, at the age of 17, moved to London from his home in Vancouver. That's a big move for a teenager, and perhaps a slightly unusual one for a jazz-loving Canadian. New York, or perhaps Los Angeles, seems like a more logical place to go, but the move wasn't simply to experience more jazz. Phelps explains: "First and foremost, my mother came to England after marrying a trombone player—Dennis Rollins. He's my stepfather. So at 17, I thought it would be a wise move to come to England and check out the scene." Rollins is a popular and well-known jazz musician:a bandleader in his own right, and a regular member of Maceo Parker's band. When asked if he came to London with his mother, Phelps laughs, "Yes. I still needed my mama's bosom." Indeed, although Phelps' ideas about jazz and his own development clearly come from some serious consideration, he is also self-effacing and quick to see the funny side of things—there's plenty of laughter throughout the interview.

The young trumpeter gained an introduction to much of the UK jazz scene through family connections, and very soon he was part of it himself. "My uncle, Joe Bashorun, he was on the scene—he's now back in Vancouver, I think—he played with Courtney Pine and others, so I knew all the people he knew, and they knew that his nephew was coming to London. So I had quite a few connections before I arrived. ...Pretty soon, I joined Tomorrow's Warriors. I went down to the jam sessions they arranged; then I joined the band. Through that, I met the guys who became Empirical."

Phelps also attempted to continue formal musical education, but this proved a little harder. "I had tried to get into the Royal Academy of Music: I'd auditioned and been given a place, but the overseas student fees I had to pay were too much. So I had to wait a few years, but I eventually got into Trinity College of Music when I was 22. I don't know how it happened, but I managed to get in without having to pay overseas fees, and I graduated with a Bachelor's Degree from Trinity."

Those years between arriving in the UK and entering Trinity College of Music gave Phelps a broad musical education, both formal and informal. "I played in a lot of other bands: ska bands, calypso bands—I spent a month in Trinidad when I was 18—a bunch of pop bands. Really, it was experience of life."

With Tomorrow's Warriors, Phelps was able to play with some of the best young jazz musicians of his generation, and he was lucky enough to meet more young talents at Trinity. "Shaney Forbes, the drummer with Empirical, was in my year, and Lewis Wright, Empirical's vibes player, was there at the same time: a bunch of us 'up-and-comers.'" Empirical formed while Phelps was still a Trinity student, putting pressure on his academic studies: "I had to go back for another year to make up a few classes, so it took me four-and-a-half years to finish school, rather than four."

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