Sorry, Wrong Numbers
This is the best soft-jazz saxophone album that will be released this year. If you love soft-jazz saxophone albums, you’ve either already purchased You Have Reached Mike Phillips, or you’ve just shut down your computer and are on your way out the door to buy it. If you’re any of the rest of us-the vast majority of humans on the planet-you’re thinking that I’m damning the album with faint praise. Why, yes I am.
I first heard of Mike Phillips in the liner notes to Jill Scott’s excellent Experience: Jill Scott 826+ album of last year. She called him “one of the most amazing artists of all time”, which seemed a little thick; but his one-minute live solo on that disc’s “The Way” was pretty hot for what it was, so I figured I’d give him the benefit of the doubt. Why the hell not? I was in a good mood.
And then I heard the album. I’ve had to listen to it several times—such is the lot of the intrepid music writer-and my mood plummets every time. There is no denying that Phillips is a very good saxophone player—his tone is rich and soulful, he’s got breath control like nobody’s business, and he’s got a knack of spinning some interest from even the least inspired tune. But I guess he wanted to prove that last point, because that is exactly what we get on the majority of You Have Reached Mike Phillips: the least inspired tunes I’ve ever heard IN MY LIFE.
It doesn’t start off that way, really: after the opening three snippets (a fakey “live in the subway” thing, a statement of the album’s title track, and Phillips’ daughter singing that same title track for a few seconds), we get our first real song, which shows what this album could have been. “Just One Take” is a real live jazz burner on the smooth tip, an actual real live demonstration of the art of improvisation. To a mid-‘90s Babyface-style acoustic guitar/drum machine groove, Phillips rings all the changes he can with passion and fire and all the stuff we’re supposed to hear in a saxophone solo, without ever destroying the chillout mood that producer Ivan Dupeé is going for. At one point, Phillips is really cooking and fluffs a note, which makes him yell out in frustration—or, rather, label head Steve McKeever says he misses the note and yells in frustration. To my cynical ears, he never really loses the flow, and it’s grandstanding . . . but hey, it’s early in the record. I give him another break.
But my charity is not repaid. “A True Story (The Tabernacle-ATL)” destroys all any credit Phillips may have built up by completely sucking; the “twist” of Audra Woodard’s spoken-word piece about a romantic encounter-the narrator . . . is a SAXOPHONE!—is telegraphed way too early (no women I know actually have “dusty keys”, but maybe I’m hanging with the wrong crowd). And the instrumentation has devolved into Rhodes noodling and mush-mouthed bass by the usually decent Richard Patterson. “Tonite” and “Beatin’ on It” are so lightweight they might as well challenge Steve Johnston for the WBC championship, and “Stop What Ya Doin’” is an attempt at hip-hop jazz that is more interested in making people nod their heads slightly in an elevator than exploring anything interesting. I’ve given up on Ivan Dupeé at this point-although Phillips continues to wail away softly and gently on his sax, he’s hardly supported at all. It’s kinda like Alex Rodriguez on the Rangers: MVP on a shit team, which makes you wonder why he wanted to join the team in the first place.
But Dupeé is revealed as a producer and composer of the first water in the second half of the disc when Wayman Tisdale takes over the production. The most interesting thing about Tisdale’s NBA career was that he was a pretty good musician, and the most important aspect to his jazz career is pretty clearly that he was a passable ballplayer. His songs here are even softer and easier than Dupeé‘s-and they’re corny, to boot. Really, this is too easy to criticize, with song titles like “Will You Stick with Me” (the melody sure doesn’t) and “Baby Calls” (“Baby Food”) and “When It Comes to Lovin’ Me” (um, that would be very difficult).
Phillips receives some emergency help near the end with two tracks done entirely by new producers. Derek “Doa” Allen’s “Maria” is true quiet storm material, with a smoothed-out vocal part and some nicely multiple-tracked riffs by Phillips. And “Wonderful and Special” by Jazdin Reddy actually turns out to be well-described by its name; it’s a funky neo-soul piece that revolves around Reddy’s versatile Musiq-ish vocal skills. Yeah, Phillips seems like a hired hand here, but there’s something to his solo that the earlier tracks don’t bring out of him. Reddy’s piece is by far the most exciting part of this disc, but it’s buried as the 16th track on an album that most people will have abandoned by track seven.
Not even the easy blues of the title track that finishes off this 67-minute affair can rescue Mike Phillips from the ministrations of his producers. Phillips is a really good saxophone player, but he has some of the worst taste in music I’ve ever heard, and that really makes me wonder about how interested he really is in making great music rather than just filling a market niche, if there is one, for people who like soft-jazz saxophone records.
And now I have to re-evaluate Jill Scott, too. If she really thinks her labelmate is “one of the most amazing artists of all time”, I guess I must have been wrong to think that she was any good at all. Damn: this record just destroyed somebody else’s record in my mind. That’s bad, people.