“America is a great place. But it’s also not so great. You can have those two happen at the same time, and that’s a beautiful thing,” says 2016 JFund awardee Joseph C. Phillips as he walks his Alaskan Malamute through Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. He doesn’t compose for his Numinous project here, but admires how he can be in the middle of the city and still find solitude in nature. He’s describing his upcoming project, a Jerome Fund commissioned piece entitled The Grey Land. Following from his band’s 2017 record Changing Same, The Grey Land will seek to be a musical representation of a more ideal America – one where we don’t have to define music as solely black or solely white. We can appreciate the work of the artist, keeping their identity in mind but not uppermost in our reactions or classifications.
Phillips’ sentiments echo the genre-fluid musical movements in American pop history. “In the ‘50s and ‘60s there were these white and black lanes, but there were always people who were listening to other things,” he explains. In 2018, there’s a rebellious wave of listeners who refuse to adhere to the cherry-picked “related artists” algorithms that define internet music culture. Next to Kendrick Lamar’s name on streaming platforms, you’ll find his contemporaries but will miss out on the classic jazz artists he also closely resembles. However, even casual listeners are aware of this and know how to expand their horizons without having to rely on corporate mathematics.
Phillips points to a time when musical discovery happened among people: “Algorithms are filtering you into a box, whereas you used to be able to go to Tower Records and have a conversation with a real person about music that’s in or out of your lane.” He then describes the new black art movement in the early ‘70s. Between 1968 and 1971, Nikki Giovanni and Gil Scott-Heron began receiving mainstream attention, Tower of Power gained major traction in their blending of genres, and There’s A Riot Goin’ On was released. The list doesn’t begin or end there, but it’s clear to see popular music was going through changes that made the musical landscape of the time more varied and wonderful and less about those white and black lanes Phillips mentioned.
Classical music had some catching up to do. Phillips recalls having seen Wynton Marsalis during the 1983 Grammys. He was nominated in the jazz and classical departments, and gave a performance that shocked and inspired a young Phillips. “Growing up [in the ‘70s] I don’t think I knew of any black composers, and I hadn’t seen that before!” Years later, Phillips moved to New York and substitute taught while making music on the side.”I’m not from New York, but you have to find your community where you can. I started Numinous in 2000, and it just became a wider circle.” At this point, Numinous includes a whopping 22 musicians as it tears down the boundaries between classical and popular music.
The music of Changing Same reflects the band’s understanding of multiple genres while simultaneously shattering the expectations behind them. Opener “19” begins with a bass lick straight out of Bootsy Collins’ handbook before a future funk opera plays out across the track. A guitar solo that would make Prince jealous arrives. Meanwhile, horns and strings show substance beyond the realms of rock and soul. You can almost see Phillips’ smile as the genres mix and weave together.
“Miserere” (miss-ah-rare-eh) is even better. A goldmine of structure and nuance, the first minutes are occupied by a spoken word passage, a weeping violin, and a Wurlitzer piano. Around two minutes, there’s a moment of silence before a peaceful vibraphone tone sets the groundwork for an 8-minute post rock epic full of orchestras and harsh electric guitar. There’s a seriousness to the piece that isn’t present elsewhere on the record, but it no less pulls elements of classical and popular music together in new and confounding ways. “I was very conscious about my influences on Changing Same. There was always something classical and something not classical.” Phillips wants to utilize similar elements in the future, but would like to broaden the non-musical themes behind it all
For The Grey Land, Phillips hopes to address some deeper sociopolitical ideas. Social inequity is being discussed in the mainstream more and more frequently, and the music industry is not an exception. “When people have opportunities, those build upon one another. But if you never have that opportunity…people may think you must not be good, and that’s unfair.” In his post A Not So Mixed Music, Phillips highlights these problems with links to a wormhole of related information, quotations from his and others’ theses, and facts about the classical music scene.
There’s still lots of good news surrounding the issue. “The New York Philharmonic has Nadia Sirota curating a new music series. She does a podcast, plays viola, and she’s great… So finding someone who can say, ‘Hey, these other composers are good,’ is a great thing.” Also great is the community behind New Amsterdam Records, which has housed some of Phillips’ work. There was a window around 2008 when the label drew attention from numerous news outlets, which hailed it as a place where young artists had a chance in an industry mostly occupied by older white men. Women were involved from the beginning of the label, and the roster quickly expanded to include people of color as well.
Despite these victories, there’s plenty of work to do in terms of providing up-and-comers with the opportunities to get ahead. “Just because these great organizations are being that middle man doesn’t mean that we’re done,” he said. Once again, Phillips returns to the ideas of The Grey Land, imagining an industry landscape where we don’t look at black and white lanes as irreconcilable. From a marketing standpoint, it makes sense that writers use shorthand terms like classical, funk, jazz, or rock to describe and sell music. But Phillips would like to work with more people where he doesn’t have to use these antiquated terms. He can simply discuss the music with the assumption that his audience has an open mind about genre.
Phillips uses new terms to combat the musical box certain artists get placed into. “Mixed music” and “indie classical” are strong contenders. “People will say, ‘What’s the New Amsterdam sound?’ It’s not a particular sound. It’s a community but it’s also this openness. I’m comfortable having no title. You don’t have to have a shorthand. It’s more just: ‘This is what I do.’” The ultimate result of these ideas lies in Phillips’ compositions, and it’s doubtful that The Grey Land will fall short of Changing Same’s precedent.
Phillips will undoubtedly have to continue quantifying his work as one genre or another, but calling it grey in the meantime is enough. “Artists are more comfortable with ambiguity, like how two particles can be two different places at the same time. It’s not one answer, it depends on all these things.” Phillips’ music is also not one thing or another. It’s meant to bring different lanes of listening together, and accomplishes just that.
Photo: Jenny Whorle Photography.