Devin Phillips: Wade in the Water (Devin Phillips Music)


devin_phillips.jpgIt’s a stretch, but viewed from a certain angle, the dark pall that was (and still is, for many) Katrina has a sliver of a silver lining. The seeds of jazz that could only originate in New Orleans were scattered far and wide, enriching communities across the country that would otherwise be culturally less advantaged. Saxophonist Devin Phillips became one of those storm-borne seeds. Having lost everything but his horn and the clothes he was wearing upon evacuating, Phillips wound up in Portland, Oregon, a city with a strong commitment to the arts and an active jazz scene.

Fronting two distinctively different bands, Devin Phillips New Orleans Funk Project and Devin Phillips New Orleans Straight Ahead, the man has been able to do some serious musical outreach. The Funk Project throws down some of the funkiest music since vintage Headhunters (of which Phillips was a member in its latter-day version). Performances include tweaked yet spot-on arrangements of “Chameleon,” “Watermelon Man,” and a version of “In a Silent Way” that surely has the late Miles wearing a posthumous grin of approval. The Straight Ahead group, a bass/drums/piano/sax quartet, is a sublime acoustic ensemble following a more post-bop groove. Including Phillips, three members are Katrina matriculates.

At just 25 years old, Devin Phillips is gifted with a near-perfect combination of technical proficiency and deep soul, and has assimilated what is perhaps the most genuine legacy jazz can offer: New Orleans heritage, schooling, and experience. At 14 he entered the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts, a facility Wynton and Branford Marsalis and Terrence Blanchard had passed through on the way to mastery of the art. He’s recorded with percussionist Bill Summers’ hot New Orleans ensemble Los Hombres Calientes, Nicholas Payton, and the aforementioned Headhunters, among others. His vintage tenor sax reveals a rich full tone, remarkable articulation, and that magic quality Dizzy Gillespie used to refer to as “telling stories” with the instrument. In short, a sound and talent well in excess of his years.

Wade in the Water is part exorcism of Katrina demons, part tribute to exuberant blowing, and totally gratifying. The energy level is well supported by young drum dynamo Mark Diflorio, pianist Andrew Oliver (the other two “Katrinites”), and the supple bass work of Eric Gruber. The haunting opener “Cape Verde” segues into a chilling little voodoo piano riff kicking off the title tune, which Phillips says “took on a whole new meaning” after Katrina. “Destine’s Dream,” written by Phillips for his mother, takes on a contemporary Charles Lloyd lilt with some very lovely notes rolling forth. Phillips’s breadth of influences includes the great New Orleans hero Sidney Bechet. Two Bechet compositions are here, “My Woman’s Blues” and “Slow Blues,” both steeped in the elegant historic funk of blues New Orleans-style. A young rising star, trumpeter Maurice Brown, joins Phillips’s ensemble for a romp through “Just One of Those Things.” Further nods to the Crescent City come via Phillips’s own “Frenchman Street Strut” and the Mardi Gras anthem “Big Chief.”

There is energy, urgency, and poignancy on Wade in the Water, resulting in a rather remarkable debut recording for such a young artist. This disc is available through his website, iTunes, and CDBaby. – Tali Madden

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tmadden.jpgMr. Madden escaped New York a few decades ago, and still misses his egg creams. Aside from a brief flirtation with the Desert Southwest, he's been damply ensconced for half his life in Portland, Oregon. The freelance writer has written extensively on blues and jazz for outlets including the late Blues Access magazine, contributed to the MusicHound Blues and Jazz album guides, and produced and programmed jazz broadcasts for public radio.