This is a very OPEN record. What does that mean? It means that there’s no hole in which to pidgeon it, no box to hold it, no label to bear it. Definitely not bluegrass, though there’s hints of that in the stellar dobro of Jerry Douglas arcing across ‘Nardis’. And it’s not quite jazz either, as Tony Rice’s guitar will let you know as he burns through the same. But though there’s no handle to hang it by, the album is immediatly accessible, warm and beautiful. It is open because it doesn’t take you to any foregone conclusions. You may be able to figure out where it came from (i.e. roots), but damned if you can tell where it’s going. It’s open because you can walk in and out of the music and still be a part of it. The train does not leave at 3:18, and it doesn’t travel on a straight line. This music is a river, and it splits and comes back together, just as it caresses the boundaries and slowly erodes them. And it’s never the same, even though it follows a pattern – new and renewed sounds bubble forth and linger for a moment before disolving into the ear. It will take your troubles, this river. Take your thoughts and worries. You cannot fight this river. Bathe in it, naked. Immerse yourself in the sweet fresh watery grip of this music and lay down, naked, released.
Bassist Todd Phillips’ musical pedigree is unbeatable. He staked his claim in musical history in 1975 as a member of the original Dave Grisman Quintet. He has performed and recorded with some of acoustic music’s most influential artists, including John Gorka, Montreux and Psychograss. On his latest solo album Timeframe, Phillips establishes himself as a multi-instrumentalist and composer capable of blending diverse influences into a seamless musical statement.
Phillips was born in San Jose, California in 1953. He began playing electric bass at age 11 and had his first professional studio recording experience when he was 15. Around the time that he graduated from high school he began playing the acoustic bass and developed an interest in bluegrass and jazz.
Soon afterwards, Phillips began studying with mandolinist David Grisman. This relationship quickly led to his involvement in the development of the original David Grisman Quintet. During his tenure with the group, Phillips had the opportunity to work with many well-known acoustic instrumentalists including Stephane Grappelli,Darol Anger, Mike Marshall, Tony Rice and Richard Greene. He credits the experience as having had tremendous influence on his musical growth. In particular, he says: “Spending so much time with Grisman when I was young both twisted and widened my perspectives (in a creative way) about all music.”
In 1984, Phillips recorded his first solo album Released which received critical acclaim. Billboard Magazine wrote: “Todd Phillips makes a winning new acoustic frontman.” The San Francisco Bay Guardian heralded Phillips as “one of the most meticulous and musically focused artists of the new acoustic musicmovement.” Phillips was also the 5-time recipient of the Frets Magazine readers’ poll award for Best Jazz and Bluegrass Bassist Grammy Award for his work with JD Crowe and the New South.
Throughout the 80’s and into the 90’s, Phillips continued to be involved in a variety of projects. Together with musical associates Mike Marshall and Darol Anger from the David Grisman Quintet, Phillips formed the eclectic jazzgrass group Psychograss. Theband recorded one album for Windham Hill which furthered their individual reputations as leading innovators in new acoustic music. Phillips also continued to build a successful career as a sessionmusician and appeared on dozens of recording projects including records by Alex de Grassi, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas and Tony Trischka.
In 1991, Phillips began composing and arranging music for Timeframe.His goal was to write, arrange and record in a way that incorporated as much of what he loves about music as possible. The end result is what Phillips labels a “musical hybrid” – a sound that is at once reminiscent of the west coast “cool jazz”scene, the bachelor pad sound, and the new acoustic movement, and draws inspiration from sources as unlikely as Bill Evans, John Coltrane, Steely Dan, Joseph Haydn and Bill Monroe. Together with reed master Paul McCandless (Oregon), violinist Darol Anger (Turtle Island String Quartet), Joe Caploe on vibes and drummer Paul van Wageningen, Phillips delivers a focused and assured take on acoustic jazz which the Nashville Scene described as “music that’s both accessible and beautiful while remaining constantly surprising and fresh.”
Todd Phillips has revolutionized the role of the bass in bluegrass music. A founding member, along with Tony Rice, Darol Anger and Joe Carroll, of the innovative David Grisman Quintet, Phillips has gone on to play with such progressive bands as J.D. Crowe & The New South, Psychograss, Montreaux, The Bluegrass Album Band and Kathy Kallick’s Little Big Band. A five time winner of the readers’ poll conducted by Frets magazine and a two-time Grammy winner, Phillips has been as effective a jazz bassist as he is playing bluegrass. Phillips’ three solo albums
In The Pines, Released and Time Frame — have blended influences ranging from Bill Monroe to Miles Davis and John Coltrane.
Phillips’ first instrument was the electric bass, which he began playing at the age of eleven. By the age of fifteen, Phillips was proficient enough on the instrument to make his recording debut. During his senior year of high school, Phillips became enchanted by bluegrass and jazz and switched to the acoustic, stand-up, bass.
Soon after meeting mandolinist David Grisman, Phillips began taking lessons on the mandolin. Jam sessions on Grisman’s back porch soon evolved into the Grisman Quintet. Phillips remained with the group for five years.
Together with Tony Rice, Bobby Hicks, Doyle Lawson and J.D. Crowe, Phillips launched The Bluegrass Album Band in 1980. Phillips was also a founding member of Montreaux and Psychograss. In addition to playing bass on more than fifty recordings, Phillips produced two albums by Kathy Kallick. Since 1995, Phillips has worked, along with guitarist John Reissman, in Kallick’s Little Big Band; in 1999, he teamed with guitarist David Grier and mandolininst Matt Flinner for Phillips, Grier & Flinner.
“My all-time favorite is Todd Phillips,” proclaimed Union Station bassist Barry Bales in April ’05. “He brought a completely different way of thinking about and playing bluegrass—a really sustained kind of sound, great chops.”
Born in 1953, Todd grew up in San Jose, California, and picked up electric bass around age ten. He and his drumming brother Todd formed a band that started with basic rock & roll and went on to tackle tunes by Crosby, Stills & Nash and the Byrds, “taking me into more advanced harmonies, closer to bluegrass,” Phillips notes. Later in high school he gained his first exposure to jazz and bluegrass, leading him to switch to upright bass. After a few years’ experience playing bluegrass, he fell in with mandolin maven Grisman. “His record collection was phenomenal,” Phillips recalls. “Inside of a year I got a complete education on John Coltrane, Eric Dolphy, all this stuff, and I was listening to [Bill Evans bassist] Scott LaFaro. I was also learning to play mandolin.”
The late LaFaro’s freewheeling accompaniment style continues to echo in Phillips’s work with Psychograss, whose all-star roster includes violinist Darol Anger, mandolinist Mike Marshall, guitarist David Grier, and banjoist Tony Trischka. On the band’s recent Now Hear This, Phillips peppers the raggy “Stroll of the Mudbug” with double-stop accents and raked/pull-off fills, and he gives “Road to Hope” a jazz-ballad treatment with well-placed pickup notes and passing tones. “One Foot in the Gutter” finds Phillips laying down a percolating pedal-tone funk groove, and amid the shifting time signatures and angular chord changes of “High Ham,” he maintains a solid bluegrass-bass feel adorned with upper-register flourishes and sliding fills. Throughout, Phillips’s German upright yields a big bluegrass-approved bottom end balanced by a singing upper register. “Because I played Precision Bass for ten years as a kid, when I first picked up an acoustic I had a tone reference in my head,” notes Phillips. “I wanted a full, little bit percussive sound.”
In addition to his current touring schedule with Psychograss, Laurie Lewis, and Phillips, Grier & Flinner, Phillips maintains a studio at his Northern California home, where he has been working on the latest in his substantial list of production credits: a Rounder Records tribute to folk singer Hazel Dickens. Phillips produced his three solo albums—the jazz-influenced Timeframe and Released [out of print] and the tradition-steeped In the Pines—as well as the Grammy-winning True Life Blues: The Songs of Bill Monroe. He has shared his instrumental insights in the two-volume video Essential Techniques for Acoustic Bass.
When you were getting solid footing as a bluegrass player, you were also listening to Scott LaFaro. Did that mess you up?
If you asked some real strict bluegrass players, it probably did. [Guitarist] Tony Rice loved Oscar Peterson, and I was listening to Bill Evans and John Coltrane, and we were playing with David Grisman, which was real energetic rhythmically. So, we had to tame ourselves down when we played straight bluegrass, but occasionally we would encourage each other to do some crazier things. I can hear the struggle sometimes in that music. “Blue Ridge Cabin Home” and “I Believe in You Darling” [from The Bluegrass Album Band Vol. 1] are good examples of how we played it very straight but also let the impulse of the moment enter into the music.
How did LaFaro’s playing influence yours?
I picked up syncopation—he wove this beautiful thing through the music—and I play syncopations in bluegrass that other people don’t.
What other different approaches do you take to bluegrass?
Using a few more notes—in regular bluegrass the bass player doesn’t use that many leading tones to the next chord. And I like to play with space, leaving notes hanging or skipping a beat. But there’s a misconception about how simple bluegrass bass is. To have that momentum without the drummer and get that feel is not as simple as it looks on paper. I think of it as a kind of Zen thing, a real meditation and a high focus on the rhythm. There’s no place to hide.
It’s something you’re born with, but it’s also something you can develop by listening. I remember always being drawn to the rhythmic element—I think that’s why I switched to mandolin for a while. I wanted to play on the other side of the beat.
Did that help your rhythm in general?
It helped it a lot—I got to know what it was like to be on that side of the band, and I understood chords better, which helped my bass playing. When I was playing mandolin, I would wish the bass player was playing more like this or that, so when I switched back, I knew better how to support the guitar and the mandolin.
Switching between bass and mandolin is pretty extreme.
It is weird! But I recently met another bass player who has taken up the mandolin—John Paul Jones from Led Zeppelin. He’s a bluegrass fan, and it’s even weirder to come from his world to bluegrass mandolin. At least I stayed in the same genre.
What about the physical adjustment going from mandolin to bass?
We did one tour with Grisman where I played bass in the bluegrass band that opened and then mandolin in his quintet. At that time I thought one helped the other, like doing different kinds of exercises. But today when I switch back to mandolin it’s just too small and quick. I have stronger, slower fingers now.
Your bass lines often feature techniques like slides, hammers, pulls, and ghost-notes.
A lot of that is creating my own reference points for the rhythm; instead of going thump thump thump, I might go ka-thump ka-thump ka-thump, with a rhythm built into the line. I think that’s so my right hand has a reference for the time—little mechanical motions that help me define where the next downbeat is going to be. It also helps me create momentum. And sometimes I’m just entertaining myself.
You vary your articulation a lot. Is that also a matter of defining your own rhythmic space?
It’s all part of making it musical. When I solo a bass track I’ve done, I hear all the different shapes of the bass notes—it’s not just thump and there it is. When a singer or guitar player does something, somehow I am shaping the note around that. It’s done with how quick or long the note is, or with a little vibrato or sliding into the pitch, that kind of stuff. But I don’t think about it.
Do you use classical left-hand technique, with the ring finger and pinkie working together?
I almost always skip the ring finger, but sometimes using it is unavoidable. I’m completely self-taught and I don’t read—I am really just a folk musician. I grew up on the Fender bass, and it was so big for me that I began to develop fairly proper left-hand technique on my own—I had to skip my ring finger and use my little finger just to get to the next fret. Somehow that applied when I switched to upright.
Do you do any specific warm-ups or exercises?
Every time I pick up the instrument I just try to get my pitch references back. I’ll locate the octaves, like a D note on the G string, and I’ll play notes closed [fingered] and reference them to open strings. I do that for a few minutes to get my ear and my hand connected. That’s about it.
Do you use a bow for pitch location?
I really don’t bow. I’ll do it on a record now and then, but I’m faking it. I might spend two hours to do one little passage.
As a bass player, what do you bring to the producer’s role?
Bass players have an overview of the whole ensemble, whereas the singer is focusing on the lyrics, the lead player is focused on his role, things like that. Since I’m playing a fretless bass I’m aware of pitch, plus I’m aware of the rhythm and the structure of the music. That serves me well when we’re recording and mixing. I think I have a good perspective on when we have a solid take, when the rhythm section’s good, when the singer’s on pitch—all that kind of stuff.
On the Hazel Dickens project you’re working with a lot of different singers.
It’s a whole different role—I play real minimally. When I got together with Joan Osborne I thought, Man, you’d better be on your best behavior! You want to do the right thing to make it work.
Review by Ken Dryden
Bassist Todd Phillips is well known as a first-rate sideman who’s worked with David Grisman, Tony Rice, and many other greats of progressive bluegrass, so it isn’t at all surprising that he has an equally wide-ranging taste on his own record dates. These sessions, made in 1981 and 1982 for Varrick, feature the leader in a dual role on mandolin and bass (frequently on the same track), joined by Rice on guitar, dobro player Jerry Douglas, Darol Anger (on octave violin), and John Reischman (heard on both octave mandolin and mandolin). Douglas is initially in the lead for the compelling treatment of Miles Davis’ landmark modal masterpiece “Nardis,” though Phillips (on both mandolin and bass) and Rice add brilliant though brief solos. Phillips’ bass chops are best heard on John Coltrane’s “Miles’ Mode.” The leader’s originals measure up to anything that’s available within progressive bluegrass. Highly recommended.
1 Fat Kid – Phillips – 3:46
2 Nardis – Davis – 4:12
3 Daniel’s Dream – Phillips – 3:34
4 Redhill – Reischman – 3:12
5 Ants (On the Moon) – Phillips – 1:03
6 Alone – Phillips – 5:46
7 Released – Phillips – 5:15
8 T’s Please – Carroll – 1:32
9 Miles’ Mode – Coltrane – 4:57
bathe. naked. * new link 5-23-10
mp3 320kbps | w/ covers | 77mb
and, by any chance, do any of you have his In the Pines or TimeFrame? I’d love to hear ’em!