His latest album features Eddy Davis and Conal Fowkes from the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band featuring Woody Allen.
Who is Jack Phillips?
Well (laughs), I have a running joke with Eddy Davis that I’m ‘John’ by day and ‘Jack’ by night. My name is John Phillips but there’s a famous musician from the Mamas and the Papas by that same name so a friend of mine in London said, “Why don’t you call yourself ‘Jack’?” So that was a couple of years ago I started doing that with my music. So, ‘Jack Phillips’ is supposedly unique in the music business so that’s who I am now, for music purposes.
Can you recall the first album you ever bought?
Oh yeah, sure. It was Elton John’s Greatest Hits. It was from 1974 and I purchased it the summer of ’75. It changed my outlook on music completely because up until that time, I really – I was 12 years old and I had no real exposure to pop music at all. I grew up with a family that only listened to classical music and I studied the piano in those days as a young child. And my mother was a great pianist. And suddenly, you know, I discovered this wild piano performer. My interest in pop music began at that point when I was 12. I remember very clearly when I purchased that record, sure.
Tell us about the influence, or the inspiration rather, for this new album that you have. It’s all original compositions. The title of this album is Café Nights in New York.
Well, I first made my first trip to New York in 1994, I recall. Back then, I had been to New York a few times before as a student but when I came with my wife in 1994 – we had a few days to spend in New York – there were at least three things that I wanted to do. One was to have dinner at the Russian Tea Room. Another was to go catch Woody Allen and the New Orleans Jazz Band at Michael’s Pub. And it was on that evening that I met Eddy Davis and the band. And the other was to go hear Bobby Short at the Café Carlyle. And I absolutely fell in love what Bobby Short was doing. I absolutely loved it. And over the next several years I would make repeated visits to the Café Carlyle. One evening in 1998, I was talking to Bobby and he introduced me to his drummer, Klaus Suonsaari, and we’ve been friends ever since. And so, I moved to New York in 2006 and, from frequenting the Café Carlyle at the end, this time Woody Allen was there – he was playing the Café Carlyle on Monday nights – and I got to know Eddy and the band, including Conal Fowkes. And I’ve been telling Eddy for years that we should do something, let’s just write something together. And it wasn’t until this last year that I got to actually take action and do something. And when Conal and I had at least a couple of tunes, we got together with Eddy and Eddy, you know, agreed to produce the album, and that’s where it really got started. But it was inspired by many, many evenings spent at the Café Carlyle listening to Bobby Short and all that, all that wonderful sophistication he brought to that scene in those days.
The producer, Eddy Davis. What is he like to work with?
(Laughs) Eddy’s fantastic. You know he comes from a composition background. He studied music theory and composition in school, and he’s a prolific writer. I’m willing to bet you he writes one or two songs every single day. And he’s just terrific. He knows so much about music. He knows the history of music and the business of music and orchestration and everything. He was terrific to work with. He understood what I was trying to do and I couldn’t have done it without him. He was the arranger and the producer on the record. I had a very vague idea of what I wanted to do when I was writing some of the material with Conal, but it was really, it was really Eddy’s genius that sort of fleshed it all out and created the beautiful arrangements that are on the album.
A lot of the songs, as you mentioned, they were also written with Conal Fowkes – a couple of them are anyways. What is he like to write with?
I got together with him at the piano and I had some vague ideas of what I wanted to do. I generally walked in with a lyric that I had written and I might have had, for example, the first line of a song. And it’s not that I can’t write music by myself. I do and I’ve written loads of pop songs but I don’t have the skill that Conal brings to it. Conal was able to help me think of chord progressions and chord changes that I couldn’t come up with myself. So he and I sat down together. I would sing the first line and he would help me think through, you know, where the song should go and give me some things to think about, and then it all just kind of felt better that way. The first song we did together was called I’ve got Sophistication Too and that just came together so beautifully.
Well, tell us about the inspiration behind the lyrics on that song, I’ve Got Sophistication Too.
Well, I think that harkens back to my recollections of studying time at the Café Carlyle and probably, more relevantly, listening to Bobby Short and the songs that he sang, many of which were written by Cole Porter and others, Rogers and hart and so forth. And maybe it’s influenced also by the movies of the ‘30s. If you can sort of imagine, you know, an old black and white film with people in tuxedos in their, in their penthouse apartments in New York, stirring martinis and so forth. And that was just all so glamorous to me, and that was kind of the picture I wanted to paint throughout the album. I was trying to put a little glamour into the music.
There is another song on this album, it’s called The Old Grey Hat, which you wrote. Tell us about that song.
Well, that one was purely inspired by listening to Woody – Woody Allen and the Eddy Davis New Orleans Jazz Band – at the Café Carlyle. Woody has a very distinct style of playing the clarinet. He’s actually a tremendously good clarinetist. In fact, if you – you know, the proof of it, uh, you can watch an old Dick Cavett episode – it’s probably on YouTube – where he played some just terrific clarinet. But in recent times, Woody tries to play the clarinet in a very original, what Eddy calls the ‘crude’ style, very much the way it would have been played perhaps in 1917 or the very early ‘20s in New Orleans. And I was very taken by that. I really admire and appreciate what he’s doing in keeping old New Orleans jazz alive. In fact, if it wasn’t for Woody doing it, I’m sure there would be lots of people who would just not be aware of how great that music was. And so that – I took inspiration from that. I created a little piece of music that was similar in style to some of the pieces that they’ve played there. I, basically, lyric’d around a little motif from at least a couple of his films where he mentions in the films ‘the grey hat’ or ‘the gray het of compromise’ the grey hat of compromise. And so, I kind of wrote a little funny little lyric around that idea and that music that I hear them play at the Café Carlyle.
It’s a really interesting connection there because of, you know, the Café Carlyle, your love of Bobby Short who appears in the Woody Allen film, Hannah and Her Sisters, which makes me curious. Are you a fan of Mr. Allen’s films?
Sure. I do know what you’re talking about. I do know that scene from Hannah and Her Sisters and that was a terrific little appearance that Bobby made in that film. And, of course, Bobby has been in other films too. But yes, I do admire his film work very much. And I don’t think anybody alive has made me laugh quite so hard, and also think deeply about the meaning of life – or maybe, as Woody might say, ‘the lack of meaning of life.’
(Laughs) Do you have a favorite Woody Allen film?
Oh I don’t know. There’s just so many of them. But I was so tickled to have been invited to the Clinton’s … – you know, a couple of years ago when Conal recorded those beautiful Cole Porter pieces that were used last year in Midnight in Paris. And so, I have a great connection with that film. I had been in Paris just a few months before they shot that movie. It’s certainly one of my favorites right now.
Working our way back to your album, Café Nights in New York – our special guest, Jack Phillips – do you have a favorite song on this record?
I think they all, they’re all nice. I think, I think the one that Eddy and I collaborated on called Someone is very nice.
That is a good one.
We had not collaborated together on anything until we did that song together and I sat down at his piano and just came up with the first couple of notes – it was just, you know, it was just two notes. And those two notes suggested an after of, you know, another couple of notes, and Eddy and I said. ‘That’s good. We like that.’ And then because it was just two syllables, I just came up with the word ‘someone’ and we were off to the races. I mean, the song just fell together beautifully. I think Eddy did a marvelous job of arranging it. I think it’s a good song.
When someone listens to this album, Café Nights in New York, what do you want the listener to get from the experience?
Well, I hope that they’ll maybe be transported in time. Maybe they’ll remember a more sophisticated time – or should I say a more glamorous time? – that we all lived, when people went out for dinner, people dressed up for dinner, people when dancing. It was just a, maybe a more civilized time? I don’t know. I hope it, I hope it moves people.
What is the best thing about being Jack Phillips?
(Laughs) Oh, that’s funny. Gosh, I don’t know. Being married to my wife and having a beautiful 11-year old daughter. Those are certainly probably the best things about being Jack Phillips.
Do you see yourself delving more into music like this? Making recordings like this?
Well sure! I mean, if the public likes it, if people get what I’m trying to do, I would absolutely love to do some more of this. I would love to work with Eddy again. I, you know, have a lot of interest. I would love to make another pop record. I would love to make a blues record. But I would absolutely love to do something along these lines again, sure.
For all the listeners out there who would like to find out more information, what web site can they go to?
Alright, and that’s JackPhillipsJazz.com. My last question is open-ended. For anyone who’s listening to this broadcast, what would you like to say to all the people who are listening in?
Support great music. Support your kid’s interest in music. Go hear live music. They need your support. And it’s because of your support that we can do this.
Mr. Phillips, thank you very much for this interview. It’s been a real pleasure to speak to you.
Thanks so much, Paul, for having me.
TRANSCRIBED BY GAYLE BRAZDA.