Robin Phillips – Sing. Play… for Pleasure
(Rep Music. Review by Sarah Chaplin)
Subtitled ‘a vocalese pilgrimage’, Robin Phillips’ latest offering on his own Rep Music label just does that, taking the listener on a voyage of discovery through an exemplary execution of jazz standards from which an instrumental solo has been vocally transcribed and set to lyrics. He explained the whole concept in an album preview he wrote for LondonJazz News
Whilst the greatest exponents of this sub-genre of the jazz idiom include such luminaries as Joni Mitchell, Mark Murphy, Kurt Elling, Georgie Fame and of course the eponymous King Pleasure, the concept does suit Phillips’ light tenor voice particularly well, and he brings an effortless deftness to each of the songs chosen, sounding at times just like Chet Baker or Mose Allison.
Phillips is also a fine pianist, which gives him a distinct advantage over other jazz singers who do vocalese, enabling him not only to sing complex and up tempo heads like the opener, Don’t Get Scared or Night in Tunisia, but also to track them in unison with his right hand on the keyboard. I have to admit that there were times during my second or third listen when I started to wish the voice could have stood alone for some numbers, rather than being matched note for note in unison on the piano (or for example Steve Fishwick’s eloquent trumpet on Let’s Get Lost). The point here, of course, is that Phillips can be note-perfect with respect to the original solos from which the vocalese were derived, but I did begin to wonder if he might have tried to prove that point just a little too hard – and a little too often.
By far the best tracks on the album are those where he is duetting with another vocalist – Anita Wardell features here on the local Moody’s Mood for Love, and the über-tricky Jackie, and Ian Shaw guests on Doodlin’. It is through the interplay between the different voices, whether two male or a male and female voice combo, that something more warm and personal creeps in. The opportunity to involve another singer seems to shift some of the emphasis away from admirable technical bravura and gives the songs more emotional resonance. The same is true when the tempo is a little slower and there is time to let the interpretation of the song really sink in or shine through, as with That Old Black Magic and No More Blues
The band on this album are magnificent: Tim Thornton on bass, Chris Draper on drums, Brandon Allen, Sam Mayne and Albert Garza on saxes, and the whole album, 18 months in the making, is a crafted and enthusiastic testimony to their collective effort. With fewer solos than most jazz albums – owing to the longer form of the vocalese with its additional ‘verses’ compared to the traditionally-sung counterparts – when the solos do occur they are succulent and tantalising glimpses of creative musicianship, including Phillips’s own piano solo on Parker’s Mood. All credit to Phillips for following through his instincts and imperatives, and for carving out a niche for this kind of jazz on the British scene.
I have had the pleasure of seeing Robin and his band(s) play a variety of different styles since I first saw him at Cambridge Modern Jazz last year. The CD launch in February was a great night and his performances at Boisdale and the Hippodrome (x2) where brilliant. He is a really enjoyable performer. I am looking forward to seeing him again in late June. Michael.
What a perceptive review! I'd also like to share Michael's sentiments on Robin's considerable achievements as an excellent performer in many band formats. Having promoted him at Cambridge Modern Jazz in bands with most of his partners on the album his versatility and kick-ass drive shine through. As noted his light tenor is ideally suited to the more gymnastic aspects of vocalise and his interpretation on 'Jumpin' with Symphony Sid' deserves serious consideration.