Primary Instrument: Bass, acoustic
Dave Phillips is a bassist for all occasions. Whether leading his adventurous jazz quartet Freedance, weaving supple lines in the rootsy improvisational trio led by accordionist Will Holshouser, holding forth in a chamber orchestra or anchoring a Broadway pit band, Phillips has established himself over the past 15 years as an invaluable collaborator capable of elevating just about any musical situation.
The primary creative outlet for the New York City-based bassist is Freedance, featuring guitarist Rez Abbasi, alto saxophonist John O’Gallagher and percussionist Tony Moreno. The quartet marked its 12th year together in 2004 with a series of high-profile concerts, including the Radio France festival in Montpellier France. The July performance was underwritten by a grant from Arts International and is slated for released as the band’s third CD.
The quartet’s distinctive sound flows both from its wide range of European influences and Phillip’s strikingly lyrical bowed solos. “I’m not a chops heavy player in terms of notes per measure,” Phillips says. “I get more into tone and sound.” While Freedance started as a cooperative group, after a few years it become a vehicle for Phillips’ writing. He composed most of the material on the quartet’s acclaimed, self-named debut on Naxos Jazz in 2000, and all of the compositions for the 2003 follow up on Sound Street Records, Prayer.
The group recently finished work on a third studio album, scheduled for release in 2005, and Freedance will be performing widely throughout the year, with concerts in Mexico City, San Luis Potosi, Los Angeles, Denver, Santa Fe, Phoenix, New York City and a fourth annual tour in Europe.
For Phillips, pursuing a career as a bass player was the most natural of paths, albeit one that took him through an emotional minefield. Born in Berkeley and raised in San Jose, California, he is the son of Barre Phillips, the pioneering avant garde jazz bassist who collaborated with seminal figures such as pianist/composer George Russell, reed master Jimmy Giuffre and tenor saxophonist Archie Shepp. By 1970 Barre had relocated to southern France, jamming with John Lennon and Yoko Ono along the way. But even from Europe he cast a long shadow for his son, who made several long French sojourns to visit him while growing up.
After graduating from San Jose’s Oak Grove High School in 1980, Phillips joined his father in France and spent six years there, honing his bass chops in a wide variety of contexts, playing French folk music, accompanying a singer from Cameroon and leading a jazz string trio with guitar and violin. Though Barre remained rather aloof from his musical pursuits, the bass has ended up bringing them together.
“It’s been quite an adventure,” Phillips says. “When I moved to France at 18, I started playing the bass more seriously and Barre actually gave me one bass lesson. ‘Here’s f major, here’s how you hold the bow,’ and that was it. He really wanted to make sure I wasn’t trying to emulate him. He knows how difficult it is to be a musician in this day and age. Now he just kind of sits back and marvels, wow, this guy is really doing something.”
With dreams of landing a job with a symphony, Phillips decided to return to the US in 1986. Awarded a full scholarship to the Mannes College of Music, he undertook intensive studies with the celebrated bassist Homer Mensch, while supporting himself by playing a regular jazz gig in a piano bar. He continued the his creative double life throughout his undergraduate years, developing his composing and improvising skills in the jazz idiom while honing his classical technique. In 1988, his solo recital at the International Society of Bassists Convention in Mittenwald Germany was recorded.
He went on to do graduate work at Juilliard with New York Philharmonic bassist Eugene Levinson, which led to a fellowship at the Aspen Music Festival. But eventually Phillips realized that his late start in the classical field made landing a symphonic position highly unlikely. Instead, he has carved out a career as a top-shelf freelancer, playing Broadway shows and recording sessions with artists ranging from the Dixie Chicks to Richie Havens and Pink
He explored his interest in music education through more than 60 concerts with the Lincoln Center Institute under direction of Wynton Marsalis and David Berger, while also doing education based performances for the Midori Foundation. Hired for an occasional chamber music concert, he also works regularly in a trio led by accordionist Will Holshouser, best known as a member of David Krakauer’s Klezmer Madness. The group is releasing its second album on Clean Feed in 2005.
Through all his other activities, Phillips is most proud of his work with Freedance. Over the years the quartet has performed in numerous concert series, including events at Sonoma State, New Mexico State University, Creative Music Works, Denver School for the Arts, Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Sante Fe College, Arizona State, and Frank Lloyd Wright’s School of Architecture Taliesin West.
While his father is still a leading exponent of free improvisation, Phillips has found his voice expanding the sonic possibilities of jazz’s mainstream, while paying particular attention to the European jazz musicians who record for ECM. Though he enjoys free improv situations, for many years “it was very difficult,” Phillips says. “When I was in my 20s living in France, and even until I got my feet wet in New York the first few years, it was hard because I didn’t have my own identity. It hadn’t developed yet. But now that I do, it’s a real joy. I don’t have to feel bad if I copy him unconsciously. Barre is definitely in my blood.”
Indeed, they have started performing together with some regularity, most prominently at the International Society of Bassist, an organization Barre been president of since 2003. They’ve done several duo recitals in Hawaii, at the Uzeste festival in France, and there is talk of a duo bass album. For Phillips, the bass isn’t just a vocation, it’s the center of gravity for a far- flung family.