By Cheryl Boone
Over the years, Mike Phillips has been on a musical learning journey that has taken him from Gospel, R&B, Hip Hop and Jazz, to now having his own voice. He’s sharing that distinctive voice with his fans through his live shows and his current CD, M.P.3.
The Philly native, who grew up playing in church with the likes of Faith Evans, Jill Scott and Kelly Price, used to sneak into clubs to play with the local bands as a youth. Taking advantage of the public school system’s promotion of music education, he learned several instruments such as the Bass, French Horn and the Violin, while working on his craft, and eventually setting his attention on the Saxophone.
At the youthful age of 20, Mike took to the road and played with some of R&B and Hip Hop’s top headliners such as Mary J. Blige, Beyonce, Missy Elliott, Timbaland, Blackstreet, Aaron Hall, Destiny’s Child, and eventually jazz great, Wayman Tisdale. Using this as another form of education, it helped the young budding musician understand that there were many modes of music. Developing a personal love for the jazz greats like Charlie Parker, Cannonball Adderley, Dexter Gordon and Sonny Rollins, you get the sense that he is also a jazz historian as well. Names like Byrd and ‘Trane roll off his tongue as he outlines the lineage of artists passing the torch down from one generation to the next. He speaks of Louie Armstrong, Dizzy and Miles with great admiration before moving on to some of the fathers of contemporary jazz Ronnie Laws, Grover Washington Jr., George Howard, Art Porter set the stage for today’s artists like Najee, Kirk Whalum and Everette Harp.
Mike sees himself as a hybrid, bridging together jazz and funk, since he also loves the sounds of Roger Troutman, Teddy Riley, Confunkshun, and Brother’s Johnson. Combining all he’s learned through both study and personal experiences, Mike is clear on the fact that there is a bigger picture than just playing and fitting into a specific format.
As Mike continued developing his own sound as a solo artist, under the tutelage of Stevie Wonder and Prince this is where he learned how to connect with and have a very intimate relationship with an audience, as well as how to build a show from beginning to end. But always a creative thinker and visionary, he continues to looks for ways to make his shows better for his fans.
Now there have been moments where the tables turned, and Mike became the fan of others. He recalls a couple of prestigious events that he played at which included Nelson Mandela’s 80th birthday party in Johannesburg, South Africa, which resulted in his getting the chance to shake hands and talk to the dignitary. “That was an absolutely amazing experience and one that I’ll never forget, as was playing for Oprah’s 50th birthday bash.”
After having seen Mike perform live, SJM decided to find out what Mike Phillips and M.P.3 is all about.
SJM: What was the defining moment as a solo artist in your career?
Mike: My coming out party was when Jill Scott and I did 40 cities in 2001 for The Words and Sounds Tour, where I opened for her and I put together my band.
SJM: You may be one of the only to have played with all 3 Stevie (Wonder), Prince and Michael (Jackson). How does that make you feel as an artist?
Mike: I’m absolutely honored. I call them the 3 rings. When I first played on a Stevie record I was just astonished. Then Prince asked me to play on his record. Recently John McClain, the co-executor of the Michael Jackson estate, who is over all his music endeavors, asked me to play on a Michael Jackson track. They let me loose on it. It’s an honor because I’m nothing to these guys based on who I am and who they are in the business. The only thing they wanted from me was to hear my sound and my skill on their track. I’m 100% honored and humbled because I think these 3 could be on the Mt. Rushmore of music. I’m honored because these people reached out to me.
SJM: Are there any plans for Stevie to join you on any of your shows?
Mike: Yeah when I’m in L.A. I’ll tell him that I’m coming and he’ll pop up at the show. There have been a lot of occasions when I’ve told Prince I was coming and he’s hopped up on stage with me. You know I’m just happy that these people appreciate my gift for what it is and I can play on their records. In return, I don’t get a big head or get arrogant about what I do. I just take that same energy and make sure that I create opportunities for others in this wonderful genre.
SJM: So let’s talk about your shows. How do you go about putting together a Mike Phillips show?
Mike: Putting a show together for me is all about peaks and valleys and the biggest thing that Prince told me is that you can’t rush when you’re playing. If you lay it out, you’re looking at mountain tops and those tops will be different sizes. So I start hot, but not as hot as I’m going to finish and you have the mountain tops and the valleys in between. So you create an arrangement of where you can play some slow stuff and then go right back up to that mountain top. In the valley you can play maybe some cover stuff or maybe something acoustic where it’s just you and the piano. Then you bring everybody back to the top and you start the party again. Break it all the way back down and start in the valley where you can play something smooth and sexy but powerful that has the opportunity into growing into something and takes you back to the mountain top. So that’s how I approach my shows.
SJM: Tell us about the making of M.P.3?
Mike: Well I think M.P.3 is obviously a form of digital transfer, but it’s also the 3rd installment of the Mike Phillips movement, which is always Hip-Hop, R&B, Straight Ahead and some soulful ballads. That’s basically what I’m all about. The guests on here are Norman Brown, Stevie, Marcus Miller and Natalie from Floetry, Lauren Evans on “Time of my Life”. It’s just a gang of people that I’m very happy to work with.
SJM: I’ve listened to it over and over and because I love the whole cd I’m still trying to figure out my favorite. I love “Stay a While”, “Gonna Miss You”, “Take Our Time With Love”, and “Fallen” is my 3 “S” song; It’s Slow, Sensual and Sexy. Do you have a favorite?
Mike: Wow, you feel it like that, lol. Well I tell you one of my favorite is “7 Days in Paradise” because no one goes there anymore. If you listen to some of the albums now, they have great instrumentals, but they aren’t taking any chances. On “7 Days in Paradise” when I heard the track that we had built from the ground up, we wanted to something like a “Weather Report, Spyro Gyra, you know the Yellow Jackets type of thing. And usually in Smooth Jazz or Contemporary Jazz people are not going there anymore. I just do what I do, but if it’s something musically challenging or different, people would rather not stay to it. Well that’s why it’s one of my favorite songs because it’s in a different time signature of 7/4, then goes to 8/4 and switches back to 7/4. It’s intricate, but not so intricate that people don’t get it. And “7 days of Paradise” is just cool to me because it puts me in a different space to expand what I do.
SJM: And “Take Our Time With Love” is another one that I like a lot. I like the way Norman Brown gets funky get with his guitar playing, as he normally does, but then you come back with very emotional and passionate sax solo.
Mike: Yeah well, I truly thank you because it’s something we work hard at as artists; for you to feel what is actually happening. So then if you feel it, that goal is complete.
SJM: On “Party With Mike Phillips” what’s the special pulse that driving the rhythm section of this song?
Mike: Well I have a lot of subliminal things in my records. A lot of people won’t hear them. On a couple songs I whispered some things, made a couple of noises but this is the only one that I’ll give away. I took the heartbeat of my son before he was born, recorded it and then downloaded it into the track. It’s so faint that you won’t hear it, but it’s on beat and my son was a recording artist before he was even born.
SJM: Any other comments on M.P.3?
Mike: I love working with other people. For M.P.3 I reached out to Stevie and to Marcus Miller, who I’m still scratching my head about; I mean this guy played with Miles Davis and I’m really honored and happy to have him on it. I also have artist that a lot of people don’t know about. I really feel that you can’t do a record with people you just want to hook up with but you have to also create opportunities for musicians, singers and producers to be featured so they can get their feet wet in the marketplace. When I look at M.P.3 it’s a good balance between a couple of stars, and also some budding people.
I remember when Stevie played his harmonica solo, I had to come back and really play. I’m not going to let Stevie outplay me on my record. And even with Marcus Miller, he played a solo and I had to literally go back in and play my stuff over because Marcus was that phenomenal. My philosophy is you can be a guest in my home or on my tracks, but I’m not going to be too nice a host. You have to get up and get your own water. Just because you have a huge, huge name I can’t bank on that. When we’re on a Mike Phillips track, we are all even. You’d better get yours and I’m definitely going to get mine.
SJM: Any closing comments Mike?
Mike: I’m happy right now but I also want to help other make it. Legacy is not about making yourself look good, but what you do for others that make them better than what they already are. So that’s my spirit and my drive. I also want to tell my fans that I really appreciate their love and support, and for them to hit me up atMikePhillips@facebook.com.
- Marc Antoine Interview – “My Classical Way”
- Paul Hardcastle’s Jazzmasters Journey