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Jay Phelps: Swing Is The New Avant-Garde

Bruce Lindsay By

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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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