Mike Phillips Interview

Mike Phillips
the Uncommon Denominator
by Baldwin “Smitty” Smith

We are welcoming back one of the most prolific and charismatic sax players in the business. He’s got a great new record out called Uncommon Denominator, you know him from his debut album You Have Reached Mike Phillips, please welcome the incomparable sax player, Hidden Beach recording artist, Mr. Mike Phillips.

Smitty: How are you my friend?

Mike Phillips (MP): Most good man, how about yourself?

Smitty: Alright, feeling good, especially after the last couple of nights! (laughing)

MP: Man, it was crazy.

Smitty: Yeah, did we have a great time, or what?

MP: Man, especially times when people were just on their feet, waving their hands, it was awesome, I enjoyed it.

Smitty: Oh yeah, it was cool. We are always happy to have you come back, so it was a great couple of nights of great music, and it’s always that way when Mike Phillips comes in to Houston.

MP: No doubt, no doubt. You know how we like to bring it. We like to bring a lot of energy, a lot of fun and incorporate different things in the music and show people how different things can connect. We can all have fun.

Smitty: We definitely did that! Let’s talk about this new record. When You Have Reached Mike Phillips was released, a lot of fans were able to reach you because of this great album and now you’ve released Uncommon Denominator. Talk to me about how you continue to connect with your fans and with new fans with this new record.

MP: I think that You Have Reached Mike Phillips was just self-explanatory. It’s an introduction, it’s like everybody up here is happy to be a part of this young man, this is my reason, my individuality, you know, and there’s so many different flavors that pertain to this format. I just wanted to make sure that I can look in the mirror and stay true to the flavor I can bring to it, and You Have Reached Mike Phillips was that. It was like, ‘listen everybody, this is me’. Uncommon Denominator, you know, I took about three years between the first and the second record but between that time I’ve done the Musicology tour with Prince and, I’ve toured with Stevie Wonder. When you’re around those icons you have to have the ability to grow as a musician. Just being around Prince, he has a habit of just growing and making sure that musically you’re always changing and everything, growing and morphing into something that isn’t like before. So Uncommon Denominator, it culminates from the spirit of that, which is growth, which is connecting with new things and doing some things a little bit different, but still staying to the fire and emotion that I want people to hear every time I put my lips to the horn.

Smitty: And you were Philly last night, you weren’t Mike Phillips last night, you were Philly!

MP: Oh no doubt, no doubt

Smitty: (Laughing) That was too cool. I think that’s a great statement you just made because I know during the Musicology tour with Prince you can’t help but grow with him, and what a tour that was.

MP: Yeah, it was the number one grossing tour last year and for me to be, you know, a smooth jazz artist and to be a part of that, to see how big things can get, not to stay in the box that has developed and the genre of our music but to see how things can get when you combine different genres and add things and have the music appeal to more people than the box can deliver. It’s beautiful. So to be a sideman next to these great musicians, it helped me in my mindset as to what I want to accomplish as a solo artist.

Smitty: It’s interesting that you made those comments about Prince because he had some pretty strong accolades for you as well after watching you play on his tour, you know, he was amazed by the way you connect with the fans at the live shows, he was amazed at how you were able to peak their emotions by the music you were delivering at each show so, there was sort of an interchange of compliments there with the both of you making it quite a unique collaboration.

MP: Yes and when I read that in Rolling Stone……his compliments came as he was coming back on stage; because I take a 10 minute break’, he takes a 10 minute break and gets changed and I come out then and play my little solo and what he said in Rolling Stone that ‘when I get back out on stage I want to get to the level that Mike Phillips was on’, when that’s quoted, it actually gave me goose bumps, man (laughing), that this dude, not only is he a great artist but he can sit back and appreciate something and give it the most highest compliment and so, from Prince, that’s a scary compliment! (laughing). It’s kind of two-fold, I’m happy he said it but I’m like ummmmm, I don’t know, it scares me! (laughing) But I’m glad that the spirit and the emotion moved him to say that, what a beautiful compliment. Speaking of that I think my threesome is, Art Porter, George Howard and Grover (Washington Jr.), and the big difference is that you felt something when they played, they just weren’t playing pretty notes, you felt the emotion.

Smitty: Yeah, absolutely

MP: Grover, Art Porter and George Howard, if they look down at me and if I make them proud, I know that I’ve accomplished the aspect of giving everything that’s in my soul and in my heart. So people can feel it and that’s what the whole premise of the Mike Phillips experience is.

Smitty: It’s a beautiful thing. I must tell you that, because each time that I’ve seen your live performance, I noticed not just the level of your music but how the fans come to your level as fans in their emotions.

MP: It’s a great thing because I cover the Frankie Beverly song, We Are One. Literally when there’s a concert or where there’s a gig, that’s exactly what it is. I give it to you, they give it to me and we are all co-existing in this one musical umbrella of me giving it to people appreciating it and moving in a circle.

Smitty: It’s truly an amazing experience. You’ve traveled with Stevie Wonder, you’ve collaborated with Rochelle Farrell, Wayman Tisdale, Jonathan Butler, Babyface, Boyz2men, Jill Scott, I mean the list goes on of a who’s who in music, period. No doubt you’ve got to have taken some beautiful elements of life from those experiences as well. Talk to me about how you’ve incorporated those experiences into the Mike Philly thing.

MP: Well, for 100 percent I remember I was one of those guys, like when I was in 10th grade or even younger, we used to hang out on the corner and one guy does the beat box and I would do my rhythmic thing, we’d always think that we would grow up to be Jay Z or something like that (laughing). I think that whole aspect of what hiphop is, what great music is and how it’s done is truly a part of my presentation, not because it sounds cool, because it’s a part of who I am. So when I have a track that’s hiphop oriented, I’m that same type of dude that was out on the corner, I’m battling somebody, you know, I want to have a hiphop freestyle battle (musically), you know. So even when you hear me on a rap, I relate to that stuff because I am that stuff. Now, mind you, I can put on a suit and we can go the wineries and we can play and I can have my linen shirt on and linen pants and blowing in the wind and, that’s cool too because I appreciate the aspect of embracing the fact that you have to attain some level of versatility. However, keep in mind that even when Bird, Trane and all those guys, Dizzy, they started experimenting with Bebop, that stuff came from the ghetto, it came from the inner city, Kansas City and those places like that where Bebop would just pop up out of nowhere. It didn’t start in what you call the high echelon aspect of musical society so, I think even embracing hiphop, embracing other elements that are grass roots and ground breaking, that’s the spirit of what Bebop was from the beginning.

Smitty: Yes, absolutely man, and you’ve really done a unique job of blending those cultures in your music today and I think that’s why it’s embraced so much by your fans because I think many of them remember that era, and then you have some that perhaps have not even experienced that but it’s so cool for them to be, the appreciative newbies of this style of music.

MP: Oh yeah.

Smitty: So, not only have you pulled those cultures together but you’ve gotten into some pretty high profile events yourself, such as sporting events, the NBA Finals, the US Open, the Ronald MacDonald House charity, you were on tour with the charity tour with Venus and Serena Williams.

MP: With Venus and Serena, which I just recently spoke to, I kind of expressed that, I’m in Houston now and the bad thing about that is now I’m not going to be able to see them play at the US Open, but, you know, I’ve got to hold it down, I’ve got to support the record.

Smitty: When I heard you were on tour with them, I got real jealous (laughing).

MP: Well, you know, I’ll get Serena to send you a picture.

Smitty: Oh please! (laughing)

MP: You see, my thing is, being that sometimes the business of smooth jazz not embracing something different, sometimes I have to take the alternative routes. So, looking at the grass -roots clubs, the fact that I can go on tour with Venus and Serena, and you know, hit and make impressions on 30,000 people when they are playing tennis, and I’ll come out and do the national anthem, and they also have me to play a song when they change sets. Another thing is hooking up with the historically black colleges like FAMU and Tennessee State; when they have the Battle of the Bands, I’ll be there, I’ll be in the middle helping do the battle and then I’ll come out and play a song and that’s 70,000 people in one stadium. Hooking up with the NBA, the NFL and doing the national anthems and all the college the NCAA and all of these different things. It allows me to build a grass-roots foundation without getting on my knees and begging the infrastructure who control what happens to let me in. Now, I’m sure that the record is good enough to be sanctioned for the format, but at the end of the day I think you get more attention by being more pro-active in your career. And then when they sanction it and when BA and all the other smooth jazz stations finally sign off on it, then I’m cool because I’m so excited about being involved with the format. I think we have to find different ways to reach another generation because there’s a whole next level of college kids and younger generation of people that are ready to experiment and get into the format, but the environment right now in this format is not breathing the next generation. So, at the end of the day, we are going to be stuck in the old format if we don’t reach out and do innovative things to get the next wave of people that will support this great format and I’m doing that right now.

Smitty: I totally agree with you, because you’ve got to have creativity, you’ve got to have growth in anything you do. If you don’t grow, then what happens? You eventually wither away.

MP: Exactly and then I want this format to survive so that the next Mike Philly or the next Grover, the next whoever, 35 years after this can have a shot and, not only play some great music but have a built-in fan base that when they do their thing in the format they will be appreciated.

Smitty: Very well stated.

MP: You know, when you talk about the format and the growth of the format, I can’t think about how I’m going get my style, obviously as a musician who has accomplished a little in my small time in the music industry, I’ve never missed a meal. So it’s not about me but it is about making sure that the next generation of musicians are properly set up so that they can enjoy the hard work. You look at John Coltrane and these great musicians who played during his era, after they finished playing a gig, they could not even sit down and eat everyone, they had to go to the back or sit where the garbage was. Then, that made life easier of Quincy (Jones) which made life easier for Grover (Washington Jr.), which made life easier for Wayne (Shorter)… you see what I’m saying, so now, it’s still legacy, whether you want to view it like that or not. What I feel I have to do is truly just stick to my guns of being who I am and maybe an executive will understand how cool that is, and the next dude that’s ready to do what I’m doing but on a whole other high level will be ready to insert himself into the business and give the next generation of listeners great music.

Smitty: We appreciate you for what you’ve done in the music world because you’ve definitely torn down some walls and opened some new doors as well and it’s a wonderful thing. So, let’s talk about this record, man, because I’m really digging it. You already know my favorite track on the whole record is If it takes all Night (laughing)

MP: You’ve been listening to that message! (laughing)

Smitty: I’m a good listener, man. (laughing)

MP: Yeah, that song is for all the brothers, like, if it takes all night, you’ve got to make it happen!

Smitty: That’s right (laughing)

MP: I think it’s one of the sexiest songs on the album. I always tease people and say if you’re not trying to have any babies then you have to listen to track 4! (laughing)

Smitty: That’s cool. You’ve done something else that’s not common, speaking of Uncommon Denominator; you’ve done something that’s not so common. There are 16 tracks on this record. So you’ve given everyone their money’s worth, they’re not only getting quality but they’re getting quantity too.

MP: I feel that’s highly important now. Sometimes we might, how it works is, you get a budget and the less songs you do, you know, the less money you spend. The less money you spend, if you don’t spend you’re budget money then you can get it back. My goal was never to turn around and see how much money I could keep. It was always based around the fans and even delivering 16 tracks is the same thing because you split up all your budget money to make these songs, but at the end of the day, when people have a great choice, they like 80 percent of the album that’s still more songs than what one album would normally have. 80 percent of my album would be 13 songs, so I just wanted to diversify and do some different things but also raise the track amounts so people can have a variety of music that they truly enjoy. Because people are not going to like every single track, but if you can diversify and slip in a little bit of Latin over here, and do hiphop here, and do some fusion with some cool and different changes. Then you get to bounce around and people will overall like the product, because you tried as an artist to do so many different things within the context of the record without it being too confusing. I appreciate the fans so much that, this record, I just had to put it out there and do something that they can truly enjoy and have a choice, a huge amount of track choices.

Smitty: Very Cool! Talk to me a little about some of the cats on this record because you’ve got some great musicians. I see that you mentioned Wayman Tisdale that was cool of you.

MP: Yeah, if it wasn’t for Wayman I wouldn’t even be in this format. He’s one of the guys that, I was playing in the clubs in New York, he picked me up and was like, ‘listen, I want you to play a gig with me’. After I played that gig with him, I kind of looked at what he was doing and said ‘you know what, one day I want to be a part of this community, of this jazz community’ but, without Wayman taking me under his wing and exposing me to what it is to be a part of this, I would never have gotten the opportunity to even deliver the music to people that are now Mike Phillip fans.

Smitty: Yeah, I know. He’s a cool cat.

MP: Yeah, He’s a cool cat. Jeff Lorber, we did the single Heartbeat of the City, and Rex Rideout.

Smitty: Yeah, Mr. Club 1600!

MP: So, it’s a lot of great musicians and producers. The thing on this record, I wanted to keep the guests to a minimum because I didn’t want this record to have a compilation feeling to it. So I had some great producers and musicians, this was solely from start to finish a Mike Phillips record because when you look at it, a typical album sometimes can have like 11 tracks and, you have maybe 5 or 6 featured artists, so now you have 70 percent of your album being done with or by other people. I think it just sends a wrong message in what it means to do your album so people can feel what you do from start to finish. If it’s a compilation concept like Unwrapped, then that’s cool because you have different artists, you’ve got different guests but I think a personal albums need to be so much more of a statement of who and what the person is trying to play.

Smitty: They get Mike Phillips on Mike Phillips record.

MP: Even though my first record was titled You Have Reached Mike Phillips, I want that to always happen. When it’s time for a Mike Phillips record I want you to always reach me.

Smitty: You’ve accomplished that goal with both albums, but it’s nice to have a couple of cats on there that can mix it up a little.

MP: Yeah, and that’s why we put Jeff on Heartbeat of the City and he also did an organ solo on We are one. He killed it! Frankie Beverly heard it and he flipped out! So, I mean, I have great musicians just to add some spice and some life to the record other than what we can do ourselves. It’s a great blessing to have a guy of that caliber on my record.

Smitty: Yes indeed. This is a great album, well constructed with a lot of fire and with a lot of open doors where people can see some different shades and some different sides of music and the creativity of music, I should say. You’ve really mastered this CD quite well and mixed it slick It comes over really well, and I think it’s important to make a record that you can really expand upon in a live setting and I think you accomplish that every night. I think that’s very important.

MP: Yes, yes, it is. I’m just truly happy when I’m out there for all the fans out there that understand that I am different and that embrace me. When you look at the title Uncommon Denominator, I was reading the Miles Davis biography…. and he and his father, they were listening to a Mockingbird so Miles father said to him ‘do you know what that is?’ and Miles was like ‘No’ and his father said ‘what you hear is a Mockingbird’ and a Mockingbird’s responsibility is to listen to every other bird and emulate the sound, and as Miles Davis father said ‘you are not that Mockingbird, I want you to have your own sound’ so, you know, just the whole energy of Uncommon Denominator is being influenced by all the people who influenced me, from Grover, Trane, Sonny Rollins, taking all of these and throwing them in the pot and then looking in the mirror and saying ‘what is my individuality?’ and throwing that in the pot and mixing it up and coming up with something I can truly authentically say is Mike Phillips. Although I’ve been influenced by so many people and I’ve absorbed that influence, but when I’ve sprinkled my little fingerprints on it and mixed it up into something that truly and authentically comes from my heart’. I’m thankful for even having people’s ears to listen and then to appreciate it, that’s nothing but love.

Smitty: Yes it is, and I’m sure you appreciate the love of Hidden Beach. I heard you mentioning it at the show last night, the love of Hidden Beach, to allow you to put this record together, the last record and really let it flourish and let people enjoy it.

MP: Yeah because, I mean, Hidden Beach, what I like to call these albums nowadays is the CCCA, Cheerfully, Corporately, Consulted Albums where the labels will sit you down and say ‘OK, we’ve have to do this because we have to reach this criteria’ ,’we have to do this, no we can’t not this, blah, blah, blah’, Hidden Beach never, from day one did things in the spirit of that. I feel that’s a point because at the end of the day what Steve McKeever told me, He said ‘if you don’t know what you want to do, then I cannot help you’. So that was him signing off on the confidence in my individuality to come up with something that can authentically, truly be a style that I would be proud of and Hidden Beach would be ready to market and promote.

Smitty: Yes, give it up for Hidden Beach.

MP: So, I’m just happy to have a label that allows me to, you know, I can..

Smitty: Do your thing.

MP: Yeah, do my thing and just, just like Ray Charles said in the movie “Ray” ‘Make it do, what it do’ (laughing) and I make it do, what it do! (laughing)

Smitty: Yeah (laughing) I like that. That’s a great example, I like that.

MP: Yeah, I’m going to quote that ‘I’m going to make it do what it do’.

Smitty: Well Mike it’s been real this past weekend and just a beautiful experience to have you back in town and hanging with you and mixing it up with the music, you know, and just doing the overall ‘hang’.

MP: Definitely man, I’d love you to give the inside about what you saw in the show, how the hiphop elements had people flipping out. I think it’s really important for people to understand the energy that they haven’t experienced yet and just having good guys like you within the media to really let people understand where I’m coming from. I’m really glad I have this outlet to speak to you so then you can crunch the information and speak to the people that I’ll never be able to speak to, but you can speak to them, with you being the media. So, thank you so much Smitty, you’re my man for real.

Smitty: Hey,that’s the real about it. I’m just glad you’re out there still creating and making great music. Keep doing your thing my friend.

MP: Well, it’s nothing but love, my brother.

Smitty: Yes, indeed. Alright Mike, and hey. Let’s do it again man, let’s do it again.

MP: Keep in touch with your boy too.

Smitty: Yeah man, you know it. We’ve been talking with the incomparable Mike Phillips, his great new album, Uncommon Denominator, this is one you’ve got to put in your CD changer. I highly recommend this album. Mike, thanks so much, thanks to everyone at Hidden Beach and please come back and visit with us again.

MP: No doubt.