CD REVIEW: Damani Phillips - The String Theory
By Dan Cohen - 02/24/2011 - 11:16 AM EST
Artist: Damani Phillips
Album: The String Theory
Label: Mile High Music
Genre: Acoustic jazz
Sounds Like: Wynton Marsalis meets George Benson meets Charlie Parker with Strings
Technical Grade: 10/10
Production/Musicianship Grade: 10/10
Commercial Value: 10/10
Overall Talent Level: 10/10
Songwriting Skills: 10/10
Performance Skill: 10/10
Best Songs: Pavane, Nothing Seems Pretty Anymore, Carmen, Nancy with the Laughing Face
I might as well come right out and say it-- this is the best
jazz album I've heard in a long, long time. Not ‘one of the best, not ‘top ten’, not ‘among the finest’,
but simply and truly just the best. Number one. No doubt. My only suggestion-- just like in that facebook movie, it feels like the title should lose the 'The' and be just 'String Theory'. But I digress.
Ambitiously conceived, superbly arranged, flawlessly
executed, this album is what jazz is all about: surprising, exciting, achingly
beautiful by turns, and full of stand-out, virtuousic playing. Many
instrumentalists can make a shiny, complex solo in the middle of a song. Mr.
Philips goes further. He plays with texture, with rhythm, with seemingly
bizarre adventures in timbre and tempo and harmony and melody and makes it all
seem sensible, effortless, right. He makes music.
This would all be amazing enough if it were on a 'standard'
jazz album, meaning a regular group, playing their own compositions or covers.
I'm sure he's done that. But on The String Theory Mr. Phillips goes further.
His avowed purpose is to create an ‘unique collaboration of both jazz rhythm
section and a string quartet’, and he goes on to note that ‘the worlds of jazz
and classical music coexist…but infreqwuently have the opportunity or cause to
collaborate on a musical level’. I’m sure this very question has engendered
many a workshop/symposium/thesis paper. But the main reason turns out to be
very simple-- they haven’t had Damani Phillips arrangements to work from! The
names of those who have foundered on the border between these musics are
legion—from Billy Joel to David Byrne in pop to Andre Previn to Sylvia McNair
in a more classical vein. Great artists all. Many are called but few are
chosen, as the saying goes. Phillips is one of those rare chosen. He’s set
himself a difficult path, strewn with noble unheard scores of yore, and has
succeeded in making spectacular music, fresh and funky and timeless, part
classical, part jazz, but definitely all Damani Phillips.
Two main reason for the success of his effort. First, his
use of strings is totally unique, in my experience, and utterly winning. His
decision to use a string quartet, as opposed to an entire string section, is a stroke
of genius that pays dividends throughout the record. It lends the arrangements
an amazing range and flexibility and responsiveness. Now angular and atonal,
now sweetly romantic, the strings really engage in a musical conversation with
the rest of the ensemble unlike anything I’ve ever heard.
The second is the quality of his playing. Mr. Phillips is a
musician of the first order, laden with chops but always at the service of the
tune at hand. His solo on Carmen is a
case in point. He moves from Bizet’s slinky, insinuating original minor melody
to a variant in major, and thru this one simple step, or half-step, he changes the entire character of the tune. Or rather, allows it to evolve into a bouncy, jaunty romp you never knew was there, but you suddenly think 'Aha! of course!'. This
is the triumph of this record. Throughout you get the feeling of Phillips
thinking to himself ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…?’ And he’s invariably
correct. It is cool. And hot. And wonderful. It is music.
I could go tune by tune pointing out wonderful, winning
moments: the string breakdown in Pavane,
the wonderfully mysterious bass solo over strings in Spanish Eyes, Phillips’ gorgeous solo on Lush Life, the beautiful string intro to Phillips’ own Nothing
Seems Pretty Anymore…but better to discover these moments for yourself. There are plenty to choose from. Good writing is supposed to be 'surprising yet inevitable'.
Same can be said of good music, and Damani
Phillips' surprising, inevitable, and utterly magical cd, The String Theory.
[ Current Articles | Archives ]