A Fountain of Lights: Robin Phillips with Color and Shine

Robin Phillips

They say energy is neither created nor destroyed. These people never saw Robin Phillips perform. The creation of a tornado’s worth of musical force is one of the natural wonders of the scene, a treat to all who are lucky to be exposed to this multi-dimensional musician and his amazing band members.

A few of Robin’s brilliantly pleasing ideas: the Cockney Sing-along; bringing back the lost and forgotten intros to the classic jazz playbook; and pumping new life into speakeasy and vocalese.

Adding a bounce and funk to “God Bless the Child” is a bluesy surprise; his “Mercy, Mercy, Mercy” takes a plaintive yet spirited approach; and he swings effortlessly on the Nat King Cole catalogue. A voice and hand that are extremely versatile, Robin is wildly inventive and refreshingly playful, honoring the melody yet adorning it with curlicues, meanderings and new buds everywhere.  

What first sparked your interest in piano?

I first sang as a young boy and entered some talent competitions as young as five. I remember being drawn to some songs emotionally and had no problem learning lyrics. Piano lessons came from sharing them with my two cousins who eventually gave up and I was left with all the tuition.

As a teenager, I learned to appreciate that it is one of few instruments where you can play harmony and melody at the same time, or accompany yourself as a singer, so as a teenager writing lots of songs it worked perfectly for me.

What did you like most and least about lessons?

I loved piano but hated grades and the pressure they brought. I can remember dreading lessons due to lack of practice I’d put in, but coming out of them buzzing about the music. I also learned trumpet and had the same experience.

I teach now and am so happy for the more varied syllabus that is offered by Trinity; I wish it had been available when I was learning. I hear so often from older people that they wished they hadn’t given up, so my focus with teaching is trying to keep the passion for learning/playing regardless what we have to do. For some, grades are a good direction and offer focus; for others it’s song-writing, or jazz and improvisation. As long as they’re learning about harmony and improving dexterity, I’ll go in any direction.

When did you become interested in stage performance?

I can’t remember not being interested. If you had a song or had learned a piece, you wanted to play it to someone; whether family, at school, or later, to strangers at gigs. It’s about communicating an emotion, sharing a feeling, and also probably a bit of “look what I’ve learned to do.”

I went down the musical theater path for a while in my late teens/early 20s as a singer and definitely wanted to be on stage rather than in the pit. It just suited my personality more.

How do you feel you express yourself best: vocals, piano, theatrical performance?

Great question. I don’t think there is a more expressive and emotive instrument than the human voice, especially when together with other voices. There is something tribal and ancient about it that stirs up something long forgotten. I think this is why pop stars, karaoke and piano bars are so popular these days. They offer something we used to get from singing together socially or something that helped us get through hardships thousands of years ago.

Some days on a gig where I just play I think I’m better at that, I’m definitely more a technician with piano; other days when I feel my vocal control and emotional delivery elicits a strong emotional reaction, I feel I am far better as a singer.

I hear pure vocalists who blow me away and the same with people who only play an instrument, so I have to come to understand that I am strongest as a singer/pianist.

Theater was a bit restrictive for me, having to deliver the same thing, the same way every night. Jazz suits me down to the ground in this regard. It’s never the same and you never know what is going to happen, and that is largely affected by your emotions on the day.

Why do you relate to Chet Baker?

In my early years out gigging, I would often be compared to two people: Chet and Mel Torme. I hated both comparisons because I thought Chet had a thin voice and Mel was a crooner.

I am now thrilled when people make those comparisons! Chet connected his ability as a musician and as a singer almost perfectly, even when technically not hitting the mark, it was emotional and honest (if that’s a word that can be used with Chet). He sang like he played and played like he sang, that’s why you can learn to play one of his scat solos or learn to sing one of his instrumental solos. His note choice is perfection, and his delivery was always emotional. Like Sammy Davis Jr. and Tony Bennett; when they sing you believe them. Chet was also a singer/instrumentalist and so I am drawn to that discipline of trying to perfect two things while being able to dedicate oneself to neither, yet each one impacts and benefits the other.

Any other main influences?

Vocally – So many, some I aspire to be more like and learn from (Ella, Mel especially with scatting), others I reach for emotional satisfaction (Chet, Mark Murphy, Sammy Davis Jr.). I’ve also found there are some singers I’m not massively passionate about generally, but one album they made completely blows me away (Nancy/Cannonball, Sarah Vaughan/Swingin’ Easy, Dinah Jams).

My first main influence that opened the door into jazz was Harry Connick Jr. as a teenager (New York Big Band, “When Harry Met Sally” soundtrack) and like so many, this led me to discover where these songs came from and I started to look back.

I remind myself any modern artist singing standards might be opening the door for another teenager to start looking at the heritage of the music. I struggled to get in to ’40’s recordings aesthetically as a teenager and so the modern approach, production and marketing helped hook me in.

Piano – Again there are those I aspire to play more like (Evans, Bud Powell, Hampton Hawes, McCoy Tyner) and those who move and energize me (Sonny Clark, Oscar Peterson).

Why did you form the swing band Pinstripe Suit?

I feel I am a probably a pop artist by emotion, jazz musician by mindset and intellect, and a swing band-leader by energy and commitment to arrangements and show. Pinstripe enabled me to fulfill my desire to recreate the amazing energy I experienced through the bands of the neo-swing revival in the U.S. I lived in Vancouver for a year when Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, Cherry Poppin’ Daddies and Royal Crown Revue were all exploding and decided I wanted to come back home and do something similar in the U.K. I’ve always loved swing, from first hearing the Harry Connick Jr. big band in the 80s, to following the music back to people like Dizzy, and recently discovering the awesome Marty Paich big band arrangements done for singers like Sammy Davis Jr. and Mel Torme.

Why did you start using the stage name King Pin?

I learned a lot about brand separation as a marketing professional before becoming a professional musician twelve years ago. I also quickly realized that while I was equally dedicated to different genres, other people would see each as a belittling of the other art form.

I created separate names for each genre I work in (jazz, swing, pop). RPT is the most “me” thing I do, so the swing band became much more about the group rather than me fronting it. It’s also hard to front a band from behind a piano. So Pinstripe Suit became the swing band.

Robin Phillips isn’t (in my opinion) a catchy name (I thought about changing the surname a lot when younger) so King Pin(stripe) came out one night and stuck. There were also a lot of bands using the “X (person) and the X (band)” so this enabled us to have a similar vibe.

In the band there’s Bam Bam, King Louis, Slides and Flutter-tongue. It’s much more about the show and therefore the characters, I think it also enables the musicians to take on the character.

What are the challenges in performing this genre – stamina?

People often ask me how I manage to keep the energy up during shows. I think it is simply down to digging the music and the people I am playing with inspiring the creativity of the moment.

Even if I am shattered (two young kids showed me how tired you can get), as soon as we start the first tune I’m off. I also love the inspiration gained through the creativity of the moment and being inspired by what those around you are doing. It’s amazing how a ‘yeah man’ mid-solo from a band-mate can spur you on to try your best to earn that compliment.

I also understand that people (audience) have come out on one of their few nights off have put their entertainment in your hands, I take that responsibility seriously.

Is there a resurgence of interest in swing dance and Prohibition Era music?

I think that has come and gone, but will still survive at a certain level. There was the Lindy hop revival and the popular culture moments from The Great Gatsby film, etc. People will always love the style, glamour and dress from these periods. The swing dancers are amazing and having learned a bit briefly I can appreciate it takes great skill and fitness to do. However, there is some confusion over this genre, when people say ’20’s they often mean ’40’s with ’20’s decor, and the Gatsby soundtrack was very electro-swing/modern so you have to be careful when people approach you about it.

We also learned that Pinstripe’s shows are mostly very high BPM songs and most dancers are looking for more medium tempo swing to dance to. So we had to accept we are more a band to be watched with occasional dancing than a “dance band,” but I’m okay with that now because we tried to adapt to that requirement and musically it bored me something silly. In those situations, it’s much more about the dance than the band or the show.

Are the challenges with a six-person ensemble: rehearsals, recording?

Yes, there are some! I realized there are two approaches, either put together a band that wants to rehearse or make your charts sight-readable by the right musicians.

Even if you have rehearsed there is the danger of a last-minute dep [deputy, as in, the replacement of personnel due to illness, etc.]. I decided to make sure the band charts were as good as I could make them. Also, regular gigs are so important, firstly to give the musicians some remuneration from the project but also to try out different things and learn what makes you who you are as a band.

Pinstripe’s Nightjar residency in London has been pivotal to the band’s development, trying out new ideas and gauging feedback from the crowd each month.

What’s your guiding rule of thumb in choosing band-members?

I’ve tried so many different line-ups over the years. When I first moved to London someone told me you can book anyone for a gig and it is sort of true. But you have to realize that if you book someone above your standing you won’t get the investment or loyalty you might want, and that means last-minute changes to line-ups which can really affect the unity of the group and therefore the performance.

I think this constant line-up changing in jazz groups (while historic) does impact on the audience’s ability to get to know a group. The London listings can just be a blur of unfamiliar names and a person you really enjoyed in one group might take a different role in another. You can see some recent successes with some modern jazz ensembles who have kept a static line-up and benefited from it. That requires all members being dedicated to the project.

I remember understanding for the first time that some pop bands, while artistically not very developed, worked so well as a unit and that enabled them to deliver a show that moved people. Hence my focus on line-ups where the people are most suited to the style, interested in the project and dedicated to its success. This is probably true throughout the different tiers of the professional jazz world and the important thing is getting people on the same page.

Talk about the Robin Phillips Trio.

It all starts and ends with RPT for me. It is my main creative focus and what all my learning is aimed towards improving. It is me pushing myself, doing what I feel is the next step for me and hopefully pushing a few other boundaries at the same time.

Old Street, New Groove (2010) was the first effort, trying to bring older standards up-to-date with some more modern grooves. Hence ballads like “God Bless the Child” and “Loverman” became groove tunes. I can now see where the weaknesses were with this album but it moved me on, brought in new gigs, and as ever, I learned a lot.

“Sing. Play…for Pleasure” (2013) was a huge learning curve. I felt a need to really immerse myself in the art of jazz singing, and vocalese singing blew me away with its exact science, requirement for great range its cleverness, and the fact not many people were doing it today. It kept cropping up when working with other singers and for many is purely an exercise enabling improvement.

I went through a period of buying CDs from every male jazz singer, especially those singing vocalese, looking for inspiration. Georgie Fame’s “Poet In New York” was very influential, but it was hearing King Pleasure that made me want to attempt the art form; he managed to make these vocalese treatments melodic, fun, interesting and they became new songs, not just a vocal exercise. Also, there isn’t much known about him so it brought out the historian in me and ignited my return to vinyl, after discovering some amazing liner notes written by Jon Hendricks in rhyme about Pleasure, when I was actually looking for liner notes on something else.

Unfortunately “vocalese” is a bad word in music circles, Pleasure himself didn’t like it just as many others didn’t; he used “blowin’” which I preferred and I’d planned on calling the album “Blowin’ for Pleasure,” but was convinced otherwise. The album also enabled me to connect the hands and voice in a way that I hadn’t managed to do before, and finally highlighted the connection a singer/pianist has between voice and hands that two people cannot.

In hindsight, I think that was the biggest problem with that album: by having the voice, piano and guest instrument on the same line changed the timbre of the sound, and also removed the harmony from a traditional piano accompaniment approach. I plan to redo the voice and just comp with piano on one of the album tracks in my studio soon, because the other elements (Steve Fishwick, Tim Thornton and Chris Draper on this particular tune) are great and I was happy with the original vocalese lyrics I wrote to a Chet Baker solo. 

Contrast the experience playing with Pinstripe and with Dog & Duck jazz trio?

Ah such different animals (excuse the pun). The Dog & Duck trio started as simply a local ensemble for a local venue. But I quickly realized it was a great place to just play, try out new RPT charts and enjoy standards. It’s also a chance to play jazz to a largely non-jazz crowd. Also, Pinstripe is heavily arranged, whereas the D&D trio allows complete freedom and flexibility and sometimes I find that is where I am able to make the best music.

That was why we decided to record an album with that line-up. It was also the first start-to-finish project in the studio, so a great opportunity to learn.

Why the name Dog & Duck?

Quite simply named after the residency venue, the amazing Dog & Duck in Linton, probably the best pub in the world.

And what’s JMT Poetry & Music all about?

This is such a different project I’ve been happy to be involved with for years now. It is a trio formed by poet Jehane Markham who often felt her poems had a lyrical quality that would lend themselves to musical accompaniment.

We got together for a poetry festival in Norfolk and carried it on in London. It is a massive challenge musically, because it’s so easy to overplay, and it took me a long time to understand my role in the group. It’s all about what you don’t play, creating a musical landscape for the words. We consider Jehane the drummer or rhythm maker, and myself and bass (or cello) try to fit around the words. You can get lost in Jehane’s delivery and it’s thoroughly rewarding. We’ve recorded two extended poems to date: The London Series and Vladivostok to Moscow.

What was the most innovative marketing launch you’ve ever done?

Marketing in music has changed massively over the last decade. Artists used to spend up to two years on a recording project and therefore the launch was pivotal.

These days with downloads, streaming, social networks, as well as the change to how music is funded, means it is much more about a constant content approach that builds an audience and continually provides them with something new, than to any single big promotional hits.

I used to spend £2k on a video that would last me as a promo piece for 2+ years. Now it’s much more about new footage every week/month, hence I built the studio at home incorporating GoPro cameras to allow me to reflect this change. It also provides the opportunity to constantly improve and document the journey as well as getting ongoing feedback from fans/hits/views that shows how people are responding to your work.

Do the different ensembles provide the chance to become refreshed and stay creative?

Having different brands/names/Twitter profiles for each really helps, especially as each has its own audience. Some might say it prevents perfecting any one approach, but for me it keeps me fresh and excited. I couldn’t do any one of the projects every day, but moving between them keeps me engaged. We all split our days between work, social life and hobbies; no one just does one thing all day long. For me I fill my time with music, just in different forms.

What makes for a great small-venue experience?

I’m so much more a fan of small venues than large. Even the biggest artists will say this. Feeling the energy of a small collection of individuals and trying to keep their focus during your performance is a challenging and powerful thing.

You can feel instantly when the mood changes in the room. I’ve spent so many years playing in spaces where the music is additional and not a focal point that I sometimes find it unnerving to play in front of a silently attentive room. I’m much more at home if there’s a general buzz in the room that you play with/against, often considering them the drummer to your ensemble, just as many of the legendary jazz clubs were in the U.S. in the past. When you capture that room and a silence descends, you know everyone is really plugged in to what you are doing.

Do you consider your audiences interactive?

I like to talk about the songs and explain why I am drawn to them. I feel it really helps the audience understand the song before the delivery. Sometimes I start a song and think “argh, I forgot to explain these lyrics.” I often ask the audience for opinions or feedback, so yes, I do consider them interactive. 

Some of your favorite vocalists to work with?

I love working with other vocalists who are as passionate about the genre as I am. Sarah Ellen Hughes opened loads of doors for me to investigate early on. Anita Wardell was so giving with her knowledge, and time and again pointed me in so many new directions. It’s always a pleasure sharing any space with Ian Shaw, he’s quite self-deprecating yet is one of the best singers around and to be able to chat to someone who you met through buying their CDs is a treat.

Sara Dowling is another who is so passionate about the music. We’ll often spend time saying “ooh, have you heard this verse” or “check out this vocalese,” it’s such a pleasure working with those people. Also anyone who listens and engages during the performance and doesn’t simply await their turn to “blow.”

What do you appreciate most from your brass/horn sections?

I certainly appreciate how hard I make them work. When I started arranging for brass I just downsized big band arrangements to two or three parts, meaning everyone had to read like crazy, have amazing stamina and solo like mad too. These days I try to use the piano to balance out what I ask of them and leave space so they can really add impact where it’s most required/desired.

Is it difficult to get accustomed quickly to a new piano at each new gig?

I have three questions pre-gig: has it been recently tuned, does it have a working sustain pedal, and is there an adjustable stool? Each was learned from a bad experience.

Other than those criteria I’d always rather play a piano than a keyboard (I just can’t play them the same way and tend to overplay), and can get to grips with different pianos almost immediately, although I will play different pianos in different ways, which adds another dynamic element to the performance!

What is the Cockney sing-along all about?

Ha ha! Like so many things this came from a need rather than a desire. A local gastro pub asked me to do it years ago and it was a gig so I bought a few books and had a go. It made me think of my “proper cockney” Poppa so I enjoyed it for those reasons. Then I printed out song sheets and it got quite popular.

We then ended up as number one and on the front page of Time Out’s 100 Things to Do in London (Before You Leave).

What stage are you at with your new CD?

My latest album project looks at re-applying the original verses to a collection of classic standards where the sectional verses (introductions) have been lost over time, for many reasons and I have my own theories about why.

These oft-unsung sections add another dimension to the song, offer more insight into the meaning behind the words, and can help the song make more sense (melodically, conceptually and harmonically). As ever I’m trying to move forwards as well as look back so they will have a new treatment. We’ve already laid down drums (Seb de Krom) and bass (Jihad Darwish) in my studio, piano and vocals are next then we’ll finish off with the soloing guests.

I built the studio so that I could spend the time I wanted on recordings, and felt I so often couldn’t in commercial studios. No matter how good the session was, within a few days or a week there are things you’d like to change/add to in order to be able to live with the results long term. I’ve already found with the recordings we’ve done in the studio that I am able to listen back to them months later and feel happy with them.

The album name is yet to be announced but I have two working titles…

What were some of the high points of writing/producing/recording it?

Everything. Getting excited when discovering the concept and looking for the songs that best outline it. Working on arrangements loosely at gigs and then in more detail in the studio. I really enjoyed the session Jihad and I spent at his studio in London, going through the arrangements and getting his input ahead of the recording session. He’s really creative and comes up with great ideas.

Being able to take my time over this album is great, and I hope the final product reflects this.

As ever with recording and producing myself, that first moment when you hear the take and do a rough mix and start to hear how the song will sound, is fantastic. Then after the horrible period of taking the mix apart, listening on various devices and getting too close to the song, it’s great when you come back to the final mix after a few weeks and can just hear it as a finished product.

What will release day look like?

Hopefully a long period of sharing the journey via social networks. Sharing clips of songs as the mixes come together, sharing video edits etc., so hopefully when the album is released there is awareness about it and some excitement.

Hopefully we’ll return to Dean Street for the launch and the main element of that launch gig will be to celebrate the culmination of the project and thank everyone for being involved.

Big news coming this year?

After this album I’ll be changing how I deliver my creative projects, hopefully better reflecting how people engage with music these days, how music is remunerated, and using the studio which has taken a couple of years to build and learn how to use, to drive this new approach. More to come!

Other comments?

Thank you for taking the time to understand the various elements of my artistic endeavors and asking relevant questions! I’ve enjoyed getting a lot of these thoughts out of my head and down on paper.

For more information, visit www.repmusic.co.uk.

Photos courtesy of and with permission of Robin Phillips.
(c) Debbie Burke 2018

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