Catching Up With…Simon Phillips
by Ilya Stemkovsky
photo by Billie Rainbird
Life after Toto is no walk in the park for this drummer—it’s more like an all-out sprint, with plenty of deep grooves and technical wizardry to go around.
With the release of Spark, Japanese keyboard phenom Hiromi once again proves that while material is important, it still takes just the right sidemen to bring a composition to life. Now three studio albums in, Hiromi’s Trio Project is firing on all cylinders, with bass legend Anthony Jackson lending brilliant contrapuntal support to the music, while the drumming provides color and intensity thanks to amazing performances by Simon Phillips.
Spark is full of dense, odd-time fusion madness. But it also has moments of spacious funk and intimate delicacy, and no one seems more qualified to handle such a roller coaster than Phillips, who imposes on the music with plenty of notes and waves of polyrhythmic drama. But he also knows when to let Hiromi shine, with her unique virtuosity and sense of swing.
How does one prepare to tackle such tough compositions? “To me there has to be a story, an approach, a concept,” Phillips says. “I’m an instinctive player, so I will play what I feel might put a fairly complex line into what I consider to be the best situation, whether I play it exactly as written or play a counterpart. What if I put six against this? Is this going to be cool to listen to? Am I overstaying my welcome? Am I playing the right thing for this song? I look at it from a listener’s point of view. It still has to tap your feet.”
As if the Hiromi gig is not demanding enough, Phillips still regularly records and tours with his own blazing fusion group, Protocol, which released Protocol III last year. “Both projects are tough on everybody,” Phillips says. “We don’t have six weeks to make these records, we have six days. I push the Protocol guys on some of those odd meters, and it’s quite a lot to learn and adapt. But we capture some great music.”
And while the drummer’s studio and stage work still demonstrates that chops will always be the rage, as a producer Phillips sees alarming trends among today’s young lions. “In the drumming world, everything’s very technical,” he explains. “It seems to wow a lot of people. But getting someone into a studio to lay down a simple track that should be one or two takes, it’ll take forever. Their consistency with a backbeat is not steady. Their groove keeps changing, and the end of a song sounds different from the beginning.
“Like with sports,” Phillips continues, “people are faster now and do more physically than they could twenty years ago. All the records are being broken. But music is not a sport. It’s a lesson to be learned from one of the best drummers of our time, and one of the best musicians, Steve Gadd. He just lays it down. Simple, to the point, no messing, no fuss, just beautifully executed, and it makes everybody feel great. My playing is more explosive, and there’s nothing wrong with great, young, explosive players. But in the real world, they won’t be asked to play drum solos, they’ll be asked to play a song. And the biggest compliment you can pay me is not that I’m a great drummer but that I’m a great musician.”