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."

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 week—I was playing at Dizzy's Club at Jazz at Lincoln Center—and I found that players of my generation are really not playing swing. Now, I grew up loving Dizzy Gillespie, Clifford Brown, Miles Davis—loving 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 album—and it was an album, a vinyl record—I 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 one—I was about 19 or 20—but I revamped it and rearranged it more recently."

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, 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 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 and Max Roach 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."

The Jay Walkin' band is described as a "generational mix," featuring the experience of pianist Jonathan Gee and drummer Gene Calderazzo alongside the younger players, and it is now a regular working unit—the Jay Phelps Quintet plus 1. It came together, according to Phelps, "through the skulduggery of running jam sessions and finding musicians that work with you. Also through understanding what's needed in the spiritual essence of the group. If you notice, on the '60s Blue Note records, Alfred Lion would put the old guys with the young guys—Herbie Hancock with Dexter Gordon, 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 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 Credit: Courtesy of Jay Phelps

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