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CD REVIEW: Damani Phillips - The String Theory
By Dan Cohen - 02/24/2011 - 11:16 AM EST

Artist: Damani Phillips
Album: The String Theory
Label: Mile High Music
Genre: Acoustic jazz
Sounds Like: Wynton Marsalis meets George Benson meets Charlie Parker with Strings
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: Pavane, Nothing Seems Pretty Anymore, Carmen, Nancy with the Laughing Face
CD Review:

I might as well come right out and say it-- this is the best jazz album I've heard in a long, long time. Not ‘one of the best,  not ‘top ten’, not ‘among the finest’, but simply and truly just the best. Number one. No doubt. My only suggestion-- just like in that facebook movie, it feels like the title should lose the 'The' and be just 'String Theory'. But I digress.

Ambitiously conceived, superbly arranged, flawlessly executed, this album is what jazz is all about: surprising, exciting, achingly beautiful by turns, and full of stand-out, virtuousic playing. Many instrumentalists can make a shiny, complex solo in the middle of a song. Mr. Philips goes further. He plays with texture, with rhythm, with seemingly bizarre adventures in timbre and tempo and harmony and melody and makes it all seem sensible, effortless, right. He makes music.

This would all be amazing enough if it were on a 'standard' jazz album, meaning a regular group, playing their own compositions or covers. I'm sure he's done that. But on The String Theory Mr. Phillips goes further. His avowed purpose is to create an ‘unique collaboration of both jazz rhythm section and a string quartet’, and he goes on to note that ‘the worlds of jazz and classical music coexist…but infreqwuently have the opportunity or cause to collaborate on a musical level’. I’m sure this very question has engendered many a workshop/symposium/thesis paper. But the main reason turns out to be very simple-- they haven’t had Damani Phillips arrangements to work from! The names of those who have foundered on the border between these musics are legion—from Billy Joel to David Byrne in pop to Andre Previn to Sylvia McNair in a more classical vein. Great artists all. Many are called but few are chosen, as the saying goes. Phillips is one of those rare chosen. He’s set himself a difficult path, strewn with noble unheard scores of yore, and has succeeded in making spectacular music, fresh and funky and timeless, part classical, part jazz, but definitely all Damani Phillips.

Two main reason for the success of his effort. First, his use of strings is totally unique, in my experience, and utterly winning. His decision to use a string quartet, as opposed to an entire string section, is a stroke of genius that pays dividends throughout the record. It lends the arrangements an amazing range and flexibility and responsiveness. Now angular and atonal, now sweetly romantic, the strings really engage in a musical conversation with the rest of the ensemble unlike anything I’ve ever heard.

The second is the quality of his playing. Mr. Phillips is a musician of the first order, laden with chops but always at the service of the tune at hand. His solo on Carmen is a case in point. He moves from Bizet’s slinky, insinuating original minor melody to a variant in major, and thru this one simple step, or half-step, he changes the entire character of the tune. Or rather, allows it to evolve into a bouncy, jaunty romp you never knew was there, but you suddenly think 'Aha! of course!'. This is the triumph of this record. Throughout you get the feeling of Phillips thinking to himself ‘Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…?’ And he’s invariably correct. It is cool. And hot. And wonderful. It is music.

I could go tune by tune pointing out wonderful, winning moments: the string breakdown in Pavane, the wonderfully mysterious bass solo over strings in Spanish Eyes, Phillips’ gorgeous solo on Lush Life, the beautiful string intro to Phillips’ own Nothing Seems Pretty Anymore…but better to discover these moments for yourself. There are plenty to choose from. Good writing is supposed to be 'surprising yet inevitable'. Same can be said of good music, and Damani Phillips' surprising, inevitable, and utterly magical cd, The String Theory.

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