A Conversation With
by Mark Ruffin
Earth, Wind and Fire front man Phillip Bailey has been making solo albums since the early 80’s. Of course, the most successful, was the classic rock oriented “Chinese Wall,” featuring the Top 10 duet with Phil Collins, “Easy Lover.” But Bailey also has recorded solo r&b efforts, and a gospel records, including a great George Duke produced disc titled, “Wonders Of His Love.” Only those who weren’t fans of EW&F were surprised in 1999 when Bailey released his first jazz album, “Dreams.” His follow-up “Soul On Jazz,” is a very adapt title, because this time out Bailey definitely put his own stamp on tunes by Thelonious Monk, Freddie Hubbard, Chick Corea, Joe Zawinul and others. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee took a few minutes from his Southern California home to talk with JazzUSA.com’s Senior Editor, Mark Ruffin about his foray into jazz.
JazzUSA: Hey Phil. I’m surprised you’re at home.
PB: Don’t worry, I’m leaving. (laughs) I’m leaving in a few days. I’ve actually been home a while and actually slept in my own bed for more than a few nights.
JazzUSA: But you are touring with Earth, Wind & Fire, right?
PB: We’re really not on tour, as it were. We’re just working all the time. We were on tour with Chaka Khan, last year. But we’re not on tour right now. We’re just doing our normal thing. We work all the time. In the summer there’s always lot of festivals. We do casinos and stuff that’s popped up everywhere. We do a lot of corporate dates, which are private companies. That’s our normal work, when we’re not on proper tour. We were on that tour that Viagra sponsored last year, Chaka, Rufus and us. It was like 30 cities.
JazzUSA: Have you been introducing some of this new jazz stuff into Earth, Wind & Fire shows?
PB: No, I just finished and just got the record out. We did it in less than a month. We did all the tracking in a couple days. It was one of those periods, like now, where I’ve been home nearly ten days. It was one of those times where I had two, nearly three weeks.: We planned. I went to New Jersey. We tracked in two days, did the overdubs the rest of the week. The next week, we did background and leads. We took a week off, came to Los Angeles and mixed. Bing-bing, it’s over.
JazzUSA: So, are you happy with it?
PB: It’s a wonderful thing.
JazzUSA: When is the public going to see and hear you do some of this?
PB: I went to Japan and performed some of it. And I’m doing some dates in July in the States, on this project. We’re going to be doing New York. We’re going to be doing a week at the Blue Note there for a week. We’re doing some place else in Virginia, Connecticut. We’re trying to pick the right venues to do it.
JazzUSA: What kind of band will be with you?
PB: Myron McKinley, who plays with (EWF) and is one of the producers (of “Eyes On Jazz) put the band together. It’s a bunch of really, really fine musicians. We’re having a good time with this thing. It’s a lot of fun. I’m so thankful that I got an opportunity to do it. It’s such a blessing to be able to do something else besides Earth, Wind & Fire. Not to say anything bad about Earth, Wind & Fire. I love it and I love everything about it. Just as an artist, it’s good to be able to do some other stuff that you actually have to think about.
JazzUSA: Let’s talk about the songs on the album. There’s one called “My Indiscretions.” It’s a Joe Zawinul song?
PB: Yeah. It’s a Weather Report tune, but I don/t remember which album. The original title was “Indiscretions.”
JazzUSA: “Dear Ruby,” is so different, Monk’s ghost may have stopped in the studio to see who was playing with his tune. (“Ruby My Dear)
PB: (laughs) Well, we were listening to the lyrics and everything, and I was telling Myron, because of the lyrics, we could make this song more of a contemporary r&b track, like a Wll Downing, slash, Anita Baker kind of tune. He did a good job.
JazzUSA: It’s an incredible arrangement that I think would catch even the most hard core Monk fan off guard and marvel at it. I think Monk would be proud. Instead of someone just re-doing his tune, you almost refurbish it.
PB: Yeah, he put a whole different spin on it.
JazzUSA: Some of the originals stand out too, like “Bop-Skip-Doodle,” and “Unrestrained.”
PB: Those were written by my son Sir, and Myron. Sir has really got a gift, in terms of being conscious, but being very current. For me, now, I don’t even have the want to write lyrics, unless I’m like really inspired. So, I just give it Sir, and go ‘here.” Then he comes back and goes, ‘okay, this is the way it goes.’ (laughs) “Unrestrained,” he wrote the day he got there.
JazzUSA: How old is he?
JazzUSA: So he has your gift of lyricism?
PB: He definitely does. I wouldn’t give him props if he didn’t. He really does have a flair for good lyrics, but then he’s very conscious. It’s almost like Earth, Wind and Fire, second generation, for real. I’m trying to talk him into doing his own project, because he’s a really gifted producer, in terms of knowing what he wants.
JazzUSA: What about as a singer?
PB: No, he’s not a singer.
JazzUSA: There are lyrics to three specific songs on the album, “Tell Me A Bedtime Story,: “Red Clay,” and “Sometime Ago,” all of which were created at a time when you were just getting into Earth, Wind and Fire and had to be extremely focused. Were these tunes you knew back then, or are you just discovering them recently ?
PB: I was very steeped in jazz all of my life, and that’s what a lot of people don’t know about me as an artist. A lot of people don’t know that as a musician, because I’m a drummer first, that my whole background is jazz. I did the trio thing to make ends meet, as a kid, before I got in Earth, Wind and Fire. I did that whole after hour thing. A lot of those songs, I’ve played. I’ve played lots of standards, and I’ve always kept up.
JazzUSA: Something else that a lot of people didn’t realize about Earth, Wind and Fire, even today, and that is how much Brazilian musicians influenced you guys. I mean you recorded an Edu Lobo song as early as the “Head To The Sky,” album, and the Earth, Wind and Fire version of Milton Nascimento’s “Ponte De Aeira” is brilliant. All that being said, I was really surprised that there weren’t any Brazilian grooves on your new album.
PB: I just think that we couldn’t do everything in one record, not that we would want to, because I want to do some more. (laughs) I would definitely want to do that. I would like to do some Brazilian things and some Latin things. I think that could make a great next project, a few Cuban kinds of things with some Brazilian tunes on.
JazzUSA: About a year ago, we were talking about the song “Make It With You,” the Bread tune that you put on your last album, and I was talking about the Earth, Wind and Fire version on “Last Days And Times,” and you couldn’t remember it.
PB: (laughs) Right, right, and I was like ‘I did that. No wonder I knew those lyrics so well.’ (laughs)
JazzUSA:: Exactly. So, what was it like this time totally re-arranging such a well known Earth, Wind and Fire song like “Keep Your Head To The Sky?”
PB: We had been doing it after 9/11 on the stage and just giving an inspirational message from the stage. And I had decided to do one Earth, Wind and Fire song on each record. But my whole concept was to do a song off the beaten path, like on the last album, I did “Sail Away.” But because of the current situation we’re in worldwide, Myron said let me give you an arrangement for “Keep Your Head To The Sky.” That’s the reason we did that.
JazzUSA: So there will be another Phillip Bailey jazz record?
PB: Most definitely if I live and breath. I try to do projects to just keep me inspired, because I really considered myself blessed to be able to do what I do, and to have the gift and to love it. I remember the first time I ever did a gig and they gave me a few dollars. I was like, ‘wow, you get paid for this too.’ You want to keep that kind of passion for music. The record industry can zap you of all of that. If you just constantly have to try to figure out how to beat the system, it can zap you of that pure love for it. So the way I combat that is I do different things, like when I did the Phil Collins project. It was solely out of trying to find the feeling again. Because I had been through a lot of b.s. with record companies, and I was like, man, let me just go do something else. People didn’t know that coming from Denver, I had rock bands in Denver, because that’s the capital of the hippie movement. So to do the thing with Phil Collins wasn’t really a stretch for me, but it was a situation where people were able to see another side of me. With this, people are able to see yet a whole other side of myself. I will continue to do this in music. Thankfully, because of Earth, Wind and Fire, I don’t have to actually live or die by my solo stuff. I can take risky chances, that maybe I wouldn’t be able to do if I really had to depend on just this to make a living.
JazzUSA: Phil, man, I’ve been hearing about this new Earth, Wind and Fire record for, well, a long time. You guys are getting like Steely Dan.
PB: Well, we’re almost finished. It’s been a long arduous process. There is light at the end of the tunnel. And hopefully, we’ll have it out sometime this year.
JazzUSA: Do you have a record deal?
PB: Yeah, Uh…well.. it’s a little sketchy to speak on.
JazzUSA: Well, you know man, it seems Sony, Warners, and not so much Universal, but it seems to me that most majors, and especially Sony and Warners, the only labels Earth, Wind and Fire have ever recorded for, practice a blatant form of ageism. When black artists get to 40, or around there, they drop them. The list of black artists that don’t have deals is incredible….
PB: Oh, for sure. More don’t than do.
JazzUSA: So, with all the history and power of Earth, Wind and Fire, do you guys deal with that?
PB: Oh, heck yeah. Most definitely. We’re not exempt from that. Fortunately, the situation that we’re working on right now, could be a win-win situation for us. I don’t really want to speak on it, because it’s too premature. But there will be a new Earth, Wind and Fire record soon..