One of the often encountered effects of the pandemic has been to reduce artistic motivations to their most fundamental core. The hunger to make art simply for its own sake, without the encumbrances of marketplace considerations or stylistic categories, has emerged more fully than ever before. We have seen this in the jazz world, with plenty of musicians experimenting with radically innovative approaches to composing, recording and distributing their music. There is often a noticeable defiance accompanying this creativity and resiliencea refusal to let arduous circumstances interfere with the process of crafting uncompromising music, to be accepted on its own terms or not at all.
Enter Damani Phillips, whose latest release clearly embodies that defiant spiritit's there in the title, after alland which serves as a template for how the jazz community can forge ahead in challenging times. There's nothing stereotypical about this album. Indeed, Phillips, who directs the jazz program at the University of Iowa, is less interested here in creating a "jazz" record than in offering a multifaceted musical statement drawing on Latin, R&B and soul for inspiration (although the spirit of jazz runs through it all). And although the record's stylistic breadth does at times make for a less than fully cohesive listening experience, Phillips also employs a string section quite effectively, and this crucial ingredient does a lot to give the album its distinctive flavor.
Phillips is no stranger to "jazz + strings" projects, having released a previous one in 2011. But unlike that earlier effort he's got a larger string ensemble herean octet, rather than a quartetand the result is a lusher, more expansive sound. This is noticeable from the outset on Cole Porter's "So in Love," a vivacious showcase for Phillip's nimble alto, with the strings providing a robust and rhythmically adroit counterpoint. They also skillfully complement the more R&B-oriented tracks, like Phillips' own "Sunset's Last Embrace" and "Hymn (for Trayvon)," where the terrific arrangements allow those pieces to maintain momentum and interest throughout.
Phillips' band should also get a mention, with drummer Cassius M. Goens III, bassist Brandon Meeks and keyboardist William Menefield deftly shaping the contours of each track, from the soulful take on Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Corcovado" to the beautiful rendition of John Coltrane's "Dear Lord" offered as the "bonus" seventh cut on the album. Phillips' gently keening interpretation of Coltrane's stirring melody, alongside the sensitive accompaniment of this bandwith the strings in close rapportends the album with a flourish. Kudos to Phillips for doggedly pursuing his craft, and for making a record that, indeed, requires no apologies whatsoever.
So in Love (A Nod to Cannon); Sunset’s Last Embrace (remix); Corcovado (MJ version); Hymn (for
Trayvon); Midnight Sun (remix); But Beautiful; bonus track: Dear Lord.
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