Jack Phillips is speaking to the citizens of New York and everyone who has ever visited and loved the city that never sleeps with his album Night & Day. Capturing a range of emotions from anger to despair, hope and harmony, he combines blues with smooth jazz tones for an album you are not going to forget. Through the music of the album, he shows off his two musical sides with expert precision. We sat down with Jack Phillips to talk about the album, his two musical sides, writing for other artists and much more!
OSR: You started playing the piano at a young age, but what made you realise you wanted to record and release your own music?
Phillips: Hi Claudia, thanks for having me.
I suppose the idea of recording my own music came about in 1981 when I first sat down to try writing music to lyrics. My friend, Joey Storer, had sent me some lyrics and I attempted to find melodies for them. They weren’t very good but our mutual friend Janeen Neeley was learning to become an audio engineer and invited me to meet her at a recording studio. In those days it was just experimenting with recording a piano to a drum track on a vinyl record and double-tracking a vocal. The experience was enough to cause me to want to try to put together an EP which I did about a year later in December 1982 called First Hand. Joey and I wrote two of the four songs, my friend Jimmy Russell contributed the lyrics to one and I included an instrumental. I can still remember those cold nights driving out to the recording studio and the many hours listening to the results on a Walkman. It was very exciting.
OSR: Your latest album Night & Day is a fusion of blues and jazz, what first drew you to these genres?
Phillips: Now we skip forward nearly 40 years! I’ve become a much better artist by this point. I had previously recorded a pop album To Whom It May Concern released in 2010, so I began to branch out. In 2012 I released an album of “original standards” called Café Nights In New York, with songs in the jazz vocal style that sound like standards but are in fact original songs.
Then in 2017, I released an album of blues-rock material called Down In The Jungle Room. My original idea was to marry the two genres in 2012 but was convinced by my producer to split the genres into two albums. The rationale was that fans of one would not like the sound of the other. I always held out hope that the concept would work so I picked a selection of songs from both of those albums and combined them into what is Night & Day. I don’t know if it works for others but it works for me.
OSR: Through the album, you speak to the citizens of New York and anyone who has ever visited and enjoyed the awe of the city. What prompted this?
Phillips: Well, I live in New York and this is my town now. I had wanted to move to New York since the early 1980s and I finally did in 2006. Living in New York makes a big impression on you. It’s one of the great cities of the world and I wanted to express my love for my new home town. I just wanted to soak it all up and present my point of view.
OSR: The album moves through a range of emotions from anger and despair to hope. What is the one you would like people to feel after listening to the album?
Phillips: That’s a very good question. Yes, they do move from despair (“these hearts are out of business, no one’s home and we’re barely alive”) to hope (“it’s Broadway-bound for the lost and found, lights will guide my way.”) Between the two I’ll always choose hope. It’s the uniting theme of the first song on Night & Day called ‘I Love New York’.
OSR: Elton John and Hookfoot guitarist Caleb Quaye is featured on the album. How did you two connect?
Phillips: Caleb is very approachable. I simply sent him an email many years ago. In 2012, I had recorded the basic tracks for the blues-rock material for what was then supposed to be a two-genre album. I recorded the blues-rock material first and then the original jazz standards. All of those basic studio tracks were recorded at Nola Studios which was located on W. 57th Street in the penthouse of the Steinway building.
It was at that time that I needed to add guitar to the blues-rock tracks and I was thinking about who I wanted to do that. I don’t recall what caused me to think of him, but Caleb popped into my mind. I knew he would be perfect so I sent him a really nice email asking if he would consider doing it. He said “yes”, so we met at a studio in Burbank and over the course of about three hours he played all the guitar parts. I didn’t quite know what to expect but he’s a pro and the result was of course fantastic.
OSR: What was your creative process for the album? Did the concept come first or did the music flow organically?
Phillips: I had previously written the three blues-rock songs in the early 2000s but had never recorded them, so I knew that I wanted to include them in a new project. I had also written ‘The Old Grey Hat’ which was a New Orleans jazz tune in tribute to Woody Allen. So the two ideas, blues-rock and jazz, were there.
I sat down and wrote a pop tune called ‘I Love New York’ and by that point, I had half an album. I wanted to add more jazz songs so I worked with Conal Fowkes to write ‘I’ve Got Sophistication Too’ and ‘Let’s Drink To Us’. It was at that point that Eddy Davis heard what we were doing. Conal and Eddy played every Monday night with Woody Allen at the Café Carlyle and it was Eddy who wanted to know why I was mixing two genres together? He convinced me to separate them into two albums and proposed that we record a full album of original jazz standards.
So at that point, I started to write with Eddy as well and eventually we had written all the material for Café Nights In New York. That album was written, recorded and mastered in about 6 weeks. Most of my albums take many years to complete. So this was very exciting. Eddy produced that album and I’m very proud of it. He was Woody Allen’s long-time band leader and a wonderful man. Sadly we lost him to the coronavirus last April.
OSR: Over the years, you have written music for other musicians. How different is writing for others compared to writing for your own releases?
Phillips: It’s really not different at all. My process of writing music is the same. I take a lyric and I set it to music. It’s usually in the production where the differences occur. If my music is recorded by someone else, it usually sounds different than how I might record it.
OSR: How do you feel this album compares to the others you have released?
Phillips: Naturally I think it’s the best album I’ve ever made. That’s almost always true no matter what my latest album is, but this album really is one of my very best. I’m very proud of it.
OSR: If people could listen to only one track from the album, which would you recommend?
Phillips: The first track, ‘I Love New York’. It says everything I want to say about the home town I love.
OSR: What else can we expect from you in the future?
Phillips: I am sure I will make another pop album eventually. It’s the style that comes easiest for me. I also wish to try new things and so I’m going to experiment in orchestral composition. I love what Hans Zimmer is doing. I think the theme for the Netflix series ‘The Crown’ is an amazing piece of music. I’d love to create something like that. Maybe someday I’ll get the chance to score a film.
I’d love to branch out in other directions as well. I’d jump at the chance to help write strong melodies for a musical. I’d love to collaborate on the composition. I feel that there’s still so much to do. I typically take a long time to get things together so it may take a while for my next project.