Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. & Numinous, 'Changing Same,' New Amsterdam Records (REVIEW)

By Mike Greenblatt on Sep 18, 2015 01:56 PM EDT
Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. Composer Joseph C. Phillips, Jr. uses chamber group Numinous for 'Changing Same' (Photo : Courtesy New Amsterdam Records)

Every genre has their "alt-dot" in front of it and classical is no exception. Meet Joseph C. Phillips, Jr., composer, conductor, arranger and, with the release of Changing Same, a chronicler of his life as a black man in America. Using Numinous (a large ensemble of brass, strings, woodwinds, percussion, keyboards, electric guitar, voice and one very beautiful Celtic harp), Phillips has fashioned six long tracks that can pivot on a dime yet careen into lush clouds of fancy. It's heady stuff and works even if you don't know the story behind each.

For instance, you wouldn't necessarily know that "19" is for the 11/19/70 publication of the James Baldwin essay, "An Open Letter to My Sister, Miss Angela Davis," as well as Schoenberg's 1911 "Sechs Kleine Klavierstucke Opus #19" and also the age he began to seriously study music. Baldwin proved prophetic in that society still suffers today from many of things he wrote of 45 years ago. The title dips back to a 1966 Amiri Baraka essay of the same name. Growing up listening to Marvin Gaye and Curtis Mayfield as well as Holst and Bach, Phillips has a wide range of influences. That's why "The Most Beautiful Magic" lifts Prince's bass line from "Purple Rain." Baraka, who wrote the essay when he was still LeRoi Jones, touted "the digging of everything." It seemed, at the time, an existential answer to the '50s beats who did just that. Now it just seems like common sense.

The idea to document comes from Ellington's 1943 "Black, Brown & Beige" but whereas Duke set his sights high in trying to mirror his race's plight in music, Phillips knew that was too big a challenge so he looked inward at only those events that affected his people during the course of his own lifetime. Thus, "Behold, The Only Thing Greater Than Yourself" is the exact line Kunta Kinte's father tells him as he holds him up to the sky as a baby in the TV mini-series, Roots.

You can hear traces throughout of such minimalist composers as Phillip Glass and Steve Reich. For "Miserere," the only track not recorded live, he was thinking of the work of Miles Davis and producer Teo Macero. Phillips is going for a "post-black aesthetic" incorporating both high-brow and low-brow in one swooping mélange of sophisticated juxtapositions. This will never get old. The orchestral scores here are kinetic and full of surprises. The only question now is what can Phillips possibly follow up this masterwork with?

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TagsJoseph C. Phillips, Numinous, New Amsterdam Records, REVIEW

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