CD REVIEW: Damani Phillips - The Reckoning
By Dan Cohen - 02/05/2013 - 04:00 PM EST
Artist: Damani Phillips
Album: The Reckoning
Sounds Like: Lee Morgan, Hank Mobley
Technical Grade: 10/10
Production/Musicianship Grade: 10/10
Commercial Value: 10/10
Overall Talent Level: 10/10
Songwriting Skills: 10/10
Performance Skill: 10/10
Best Songs: One for C.P., You Are Who You Are, Lotus Blossom, Isfahan
What a gift, what a pleasure it is for a reviewer to have bet on a horse and see that pony come in! The talented saxophonist Damani Phillips sent me his CD String Theory a few years back, and I flipped for it. A mixture of jazz and classical influences, an area where many are called but few are chosen, he produced a stellar experiment in this hybrid genre, mixing a classical string quartet to a traditional jazz ensemble and playing classic jazz tunes and jazzy classical numbers to startling effect. Here was a musical mind worth reckoning with. An intellectual exercise made fun and funky by his ministrations. Must keep an eye out. I added the album to my collection, gave it a great review, gave it a bit of a workout in the car, and that was that.
Until last week, when I received Mr. Phillips' latest opus, The Reckoning, in the mail. Imagine me being excited to open a cd for review! Could lightning strike twice? Well, shazzam! Let's just say the album did not disappoint. No, in fact again I was blown away-- by Phillips' chops, sure, but at a certain point that becomes a given. You're a good player. But again, a wonderful, impish, lyrical musical intelligence shines through all the tunes on this album, and all his work.
And what tunes! He starts with a Hank Mobley number that led me to consult the original, to which he does justice. Which is saying a lot. There's the crisp urgency to his band's playing that characterizes the whole album. The cd feels like the work of one mind, one musical entity, so smoothly and surely do these players connect and coalesce. I thought they'd been playing together for years and years. Imagine my surprise when I learned in the liner notes that his band was assembled from New York session 'cats', and the resulting sessions were laid down in several sessions in New Jersey, far from the Iowa Damani presently calls home. All players that he'd been eager to play with for years. And one can see why. Drummer Lewis Nash is deservedly famous for his extraordinary playing and his versatility, on display all over this album, from the funk of One for C.P. to the hard bop of No Room for Squares. A special treat is Pat Bianchi, playing Hammond B-3 organ, and letting you know, in case you'd forgotten, of how expressive and captivating that instrument can be. And not just as a churning underbelly to various rock and pop songs, but as a delicate and evocative instrument all on it's own. Two instruments, really, because with his feet Mr. Bianchi is laying down all the sweet bass lines that populate this album. Especially on a tune like 'One for C.P.', an undeniably funky tune, his badass bass plays a supporting but essential role. He shines on 'No Room For Squares' the aforementioned Mobley number, where there's a precious moment towards the beginning of his solo where Nash gives him a quick four brush cue and Bianchi runs with it, leading to all manner of musical musings. It is integrated, generous soloing at it's finest. Greg Gisbert is a wonder on the trumpet, with a sweet, clear tone somewhat reminiscent of Freddy Hubbard in musical invention, but without a hint of bombast. Just serving the band, whatever tune we're on.
And then there's Mr. Phillips', whose arresting sax playing runs the gamut from purely and gorgeously lyrical to wildly experimental and raw. Again, he doesn't take over (the first solo on the first tune is for trumpet), he just brings it when it's his turn. And his wonderful arrangements are, well wonderful. The main title theme in You Are Who You Are begins in unison, but branches into wonderful parts, before coming together, then moving apart again…until Bianchi takes over with his own musings on the state of things-- in this song, in the studio, in the world at large. Moving on to Phillips' unabashed scatting in Lotus Blossom, which is so daring and could so easily come off as crass or indulgent, but sounds wild and raw and heartfelt and fun and wonderful. The entire album has a kind of flow, so elusive to actually find that I have to attribute some of it at least to just dumb luck, but the whole thing flows and builds on itself like you're listening to their thoughts as they think them, or as accompaniment to your own. Great, clean, clear, unfussy production throughout by Tom Tedesco and mixer Scott Griess. In addition to sitting down in a darkened room and listening to this album in its entirety over and over (which I highly recommend), you could use this album to do laundry, cook dinner, drive your kids around, have fights, make love, get fired, get rehired….You know what I'm saying. It is a soundtrack of life itself, from the first firecracker number to the contemplative You Are Who You Are to the dreamy, mysterious Isfahan, the Billy Strayhorn tune that closes the set.
All of which leads to the following completely unwarranted speculation. No need, but great albums will do that to you, and no doubt about it, this is a GREAT album. Not that String Theory was not, but the very conception had about it, could not divorce itself from, the idea of an academic exercise. No matter how successful, in the back of your mind you were always comparing to the original, whether Ravel or Bizet or Strayhorn, and wondering did he do it? Is it successful? And he was.
But The Reckoning is Damani's own statement. It is purely from the heart. It is one long 'I AM' song. It succeeds or fails on its own terms. The album is dedicated to his father, recently passed, and is called 'The Reckoning', and I can't help thinking that the reckoning he's speaking of is his own, the one you confront when a parent passes and you realize with a jolt that it's all you. Whatever mark you make in this life, whatever legacy you leave, it's all on you. And no one else. And time's a-wasting. Make hay while the sun shines, cos it don't shine on anyone of us forever. This may be the reckoning that inspired Mr. Phillips to make such a bold, challenging, traditional yet strikingly original and surpassingly beautiful record. It feels like this is the music of a man who has decided he has nothing to prove. I'm just going to do what I love, what I believe in, and hope my public gets it and follows along. As Phillips himself writes, 'I began to embrace my changing ear instead of fighting it, and in the process, realized that reaching one's full potential requires unconditional trust in self.' The Reckoning is the result of that absolute trust, and it is a gem, a masterpiece. Listen to it. It'll inspire you to throw off all those self-limiting ideas and be your best self. And do the dishes!
PS now I'm listening to String Theory again. It's gorgeous, and though it has a certain formality, it's not stiff or academic at all. Buy it too!
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