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  • Writer's pictureNicholas Renna

Simon Phillips Protocol: Somewhere In The Middle of The Ocean

About three songs in to his opening (Monday) night set at The Iridium, Simon Phillips, in his first talking break to the audience, made the comment in his unquestionably British accent that his friends in the UK have forgotten that he is actually English while most Americans are well aware that he wasn’t exactly born in the Bronx.

Phillips, who was born in London in 1957, cracked wise that “My home should probably be somewhere in the middle of the Atlantic ocean.” Likewise, his music also lands solidly somewhere in the middle of the ocean between jazz and rock - and later in the show he described his quintet, Protocol, as a “fusion band.”

As plentiful as fusion once was in the 1970s and ‘80s, true fusionistas have always been quite rare, both now and then. The music was mostly created by extremely advanced players, a disproportionate share of which had played with Miles Davis, jazz musicians and composers who, like Davis himself, wanted to add rock-ish elements to their music. (Conversely, when rock superstars, like Charlie Watts of the Rolling Stones, wanted to play jazz, they tended to go into straight ahead bebop rather than fusion.)

His own most famous band, Protocol, has been playing for 30 years now, and they have consistently created a music which is a true fusion. Apart from the drummer leader and the multi-reed-playing saxophonist (who triples on tenor, alto, and soprano), the whole group is electric, fender bass, “headless” guitar, and keyboards.

And yet the musicians deserve credit for creating a distinct personal sound even on devices that more traditional jazz or classical musicians would regard as electronic toys rather than actual instruments. Protocol’s set at The Iridium included some selections where the Venezualan keyboardist in particular played long and personal solos, it wasn’t all loud jazz-rock jamming noise, but there were keyboard, saxophone, guitar, bass and even drum solos that were very personal, distinctly idiosyncratic, and even intimate. At several points, the rest of the band left the stage, while the keyboardist played a long, improvised passage obviously influenced by Keith Jarrett and Chick Corea, alternatively sentimental and spacey.

And Mr. Phillips climaxed the set with an unaccompanied solo excursion of his own: however, since his rather monstrous kit includes about six tom-toms (I lost count), two full bass drums, and a veritable choir of cymbals that hung in the air like satellite dishes, seems like a percussion ensemble unto itself, it seems inaccurate to describe Mr. Phillips’s features as “solos” even when he’s playing by himself. When introducing the band, Mr. Phillips modestly said, “I can’t actually describe myself as playing. I just wave my arms about and I’m bound to hit something.” Hardly.



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