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For The Love Of Big Band

That project later aired as part of a PBS television documentary. So it wasn't a completely unprece-dented move. But the majority of listeners who know the 47-year-old Collins as Genesis-drummer-turned-pop-sensation probably never heard it coming. A longtime fan of Count Basie and Buddy Rich, Collins formed the 21-piece brass-heavy outfit by bringing together members of his rock band and professional jazz players. He called on ace arrangers like John Clayton and Sammy Nestico to do the charts. And then he sweat-ed through learning the drum parts: Not only does the British-born Collins not read music; he had never really played swing before. The group played with power and precision at this summer's Taste of Chicago, one stop on their 29-date U.S-European tour. Instead of traditional big band fare, the arrangements focused mainly on Genesis tunes and songs normally associated with Collins - tunes like "Sussudio," "Invisible Touch," "I Don't Care Anymore," "In The Air Tonight," "Hold On My Heart," "Dance On A Volcano" and "That's All" - all reworked harmonically and swung in a fairly straightforward manner. Although at one point in the show, r&b/gospel vocalist Oleta Adams sang a mini-set of blues and standards, and later guest soloist/alto saxist Geraid Albright lent a smooth and contemporary tone to "Georgia On My Mind," for the most part it was pure Phil Collins, who only emerged from behind the kit to sing an encore of "The Way You Look Tonight" and "Do Nothin'Till You Hear From Me." We caught up with Collins after the two-and-a-half-hour show back-stage at the Petrillo Band Shell.

ED ENRIGHT: You had an especially appreciative audience here tonight. But overall, how has the tour been received so far?

PHIL COLLINS: The pop audience can be unforgiving sometimes. They come not knowing what to expect. They've been told I'm not going to sing, they've been told it's an instrumental evening, big band, and they've seen it on PBS. They've heard interviews where I've specified this. I come on at the beginning of the show and I say, "I'm not going to sing", and still it doesn't quite sink in. But I'm just having the most fun, I think. Apart from drumming with Eric Clapton's band, I think I'm having the most fun I've had for years and years.

EE: What do you find so rewarding about it? What is it about the big band that appeals to you?

PC: I get so much pleasure from doing it every night. I think, in simple terms, it's like [imitates a drum figure from Sinatra At The Sands that cues the Count Basie band's entrance] brrrllllrrlllrrllllrrlr ... BWEHHH, BA-NA-DAT!!! It's that whole thing of "setting it up." It's like a good joke with a great punch line. You know what's going to happen, and so does the audience, the listener. If I'm listening to [Basie band drummer] Sonny Payne - I just want to do that. I know that's not what [big band jazz] is all about, but that's really what hooked me in. That and the Buddy Rich West Side Story album. In fact, toward the end of Buddy's life, we met at a Grammy salute to Jazz. I was asked if I wanted to play the drums, to be the third drummer between Tony Williams and Buddy, and I said yes, although I was way out of my depth. I actually with-drew from it at rehearsal. I said, "You've got one drummer too many, and that's me." Tony Williams later became a good friend of mine. I was going to produce a record for him, but as fate would have it, he died before I had the chance. There's something about the sound of a big band. It's a shit-hot band. The horn players [including Collins' own Vine Street Horns plus trumpeter and retired educator Ron Modell and several graduates of his jazz program at Northern Illinois University], they're all great and I'm really learning a lot. I've really worked hard at it this time. Last time I worked harder at it, but I hadn't done it. It was a bit heavy. The PBS thing was taken from the word "go." They just filmed it, fly on the wall, from the beginning of the rehearsals through to the first gig. When I listen back to it, it's a bit heavy. I'd learned 30 percent of how to play the brushes. I had the other 70 percent to go! I want to go out on the stage and be able to play full- stop and get it better every night.

EE: How do you practice getting that touch, that nuance of feel required for big band drumming?

PC: I did two weeks on my own. I don't an awful lot. I play on my records, and I play on anybody else's records when I'm asked, but I don't play much on the road. I went to the sesion where they recorded the new charts we got - Sammy Nestico and John Clayton did several new charts - and I met the drummer who plays for me. He played and I listened, and I took it away and I learned it. I sat in my basement and I played along to it and I wrote it out phonetically. See my charts? As you know, I don't read., It's just stuff with the hornline: Paaap! like that. [points to a sketch of what looks like eighth-note rhythms] This wouldn't make any sense to you - only to me. So I spent two weeks doing that. I've got my Clayton Cameron brushes with me. He sent me a tape and a pair of brushes two years ago when Tony Bennett came out on the road with us as featured guest vocalist. I didn't get around to watching the video at the time. This time I actually studied it. I just rehearsed and practiced. I know it doesn't sound long, but it was two weeks doing nothing else. And then the small band came over, just the basics, and we rehearsed a week like that. Then the big band came over for 10 days, Then we were on the road. Apart from the first night, which was the first time we'd played in front of people, it's been great. And I will do this till I drop now. This is something I'm really serious about. And of course, next time I come to America, people will see it advertised and know what it is. Hopefully jazz fans will come.

EE: How do you expect the more hard-core, serious jazz fans to respond?

PC: When we did this thing two years ago in Spain, I didn't see the reviews, and if I had I wouldn't have been able to stand them, of course. Apparently they had a go at us, less than flattering. It came home to me that there's a lot of snobbery in jazz and I think it would be good if people took it the other way around. I'm trying to bring jazz to a bigger audience. I'm not trying to make money off it. It actually should be considered the opposite: Isn't it nice that this rock star, who doesn't need to do this, is doing this to bring this to a lot of people and people are going to buy Count Basie and Duke Ellington records and CDs by the new big bands because he's turning young kids on to it? I hope some people do think like that. But in any form of the arts there's always that kind of snobbery. So far, I see old, knowledgeable faces out there, and I get great pleasure from that. I would like the pop audience to enjoy it, but I know somehow they won't in the end. They'll like the feel of it, but it's the other stuff. ... I mean, what do you laugh at when you see Monty Python's Flying Circus? Is it the funny stuff, or is it the silly walks? Whereas really, the other stuff is the really funny stuff. If you can get people to watch and listen and enjoy it, that's the main thing. I'd like to think that eventually the jazz audience will come around.

EE: You've indicated that you're not doing this project to make a profit. What's it like to put this production together, to finance it, compared to a rock & roll production?

PC: Well, we couldn't do it without a sponsor, that's for sure. Private Issue [credit card] came to the rescue. I would've had to lose a half a million dollars to do it which I was thinking about doing. I mean, I've got more money than I'll ever need to use, so I was thinking: Do I keep the half million dollars and buy a hundred suits, or do I go out and do something I want to do? So I was considering going out and doing it, but fortunately we got a sponsor. Without them we couldn't have done it in such a way. But the crew, they're my crew. They're rough guys and they're loving it! They see these 20 musicians, all nice people, going out and playing. It's a labor of love for all of my guys because they get a great thrill, and so does my manager, looking out at the audience and seeing people who are digging it.

EE: Why did you choose to focus on Genesis tunes and Phil Collins hits instead of doing an entire program of big band standards?

PC: Originally, I wanted to play a lot of standards, but [trumpeter] Harry Kim and my manager said, "Why don't you just hire a band and play in the front room if that's what you want to do? Other bands play it better. You'll never play 'Lil' Darlin' better than them." Which is true, of course, but I wanted to be in that chair doing it. Of course, he was dead right. He said we should do something that nobody else has done, which is material that nobody else has played.

EE: Let's talk about some of your jazz and big band drumming influences besides Buddy Rich and Sonny Payne.

PC: The last four or five years I've really been studying these "Legends Of Jazz Drumming" videos. People like Sid Catlett, Jo Jones - I'm seeing a lot of guys for the first time on these videos which is great. Elvin Jones ... I saw his spot at Ronnie Scott's [the London jazz club] one time.

EE: Have you spent much time at Ronnie Scott's?

PC: Well, Brand X played there, my fusion jazz group. We played there for two weeks with [saxophonist] Charles McPherson. We were terrible and not subtle at all, but it was great playing there. Just the vibe of playing there. I saw the Buddy Rich band there, too. I tried to see Charlie Watts' band, but I couldn't get in!

EE: Speaking of Charlie, have you listened to any pop artists or rock artists who've set a precedent for leading a big band? There was Charlie, Brian Setzer...

PC: Brian, I haven't heard that band. The only band I've heard is Charlie's band. Actually, for this PBS documentary, they interviewed Charlie, and he's interspersed throughout it. It's funny, because I didn't know they'd done it, so when I saw it, I suddenly hear Charlie Watts saying, 'Well, what he's going to have to do is learn how to play brushes first." Then they cut to me saying, "Brushes! It's not my language!"

EE: How does it feel now that you've been doing it a while?

PC: I speak "pidgin brushes." You know how people speak Pidgin French? I speak pidgin brushes. I'm learning. It's fantastic when you see guys playing and you think, how do they speak like that? It's all making sense gradually. I guess somebody like me jumps in at the deep end. I don't want to jump in at the deep end, but unfortunately I'm well known, so I can't really creep in the back door at this. Therefore, all my mistakes are being made very publicly. So I just have to grin and bear that. A jazz reviewer in L.A. said, "Learning every beat of Samniy Nestico's charts isn't the whole picture. It's playing it in seamless precision." That is, like good film music. And I know that! I'm trying my best, man! I knew he was a jazz man because he mentioned Sammy Nestico in glowing terms. But he did say at the end that "if Mr. Collins is serious about this and he matures in this style, he will be a very good spokesman for the big band." I took that to be a compliment. Not good enough yet, but almost! I read a preview the other day that said they'd heard through the grapevine that instead of swing jazz, this was more smooth jazz. Quincy said in L.A. when he came to see it, "It's quite an aggressive band." I think it sounds fine, but it feels very aggressive to me.

EE: Tell me more about the role Quincy played in helping you get this together.

PC: It's been a little bit magnified. I did a charity show in L.A., Carousel of Hope, for diabetes. In our set we did "The Way You Look Tonight." After the show, Quincy, who I've known for 10 years, came up and said, "I didn't know you could sing that shit." I said, "Thank you very much. It's a beautiful song." There's lots of things I can do that people don't know about, I guess, like play the drums. So he called me a few weeks later and said, "Would you like to sing on my album?" That was Q's Jook Joint [1995]. He gave me a choice of songs, and I chose "Do Nothing'." I sang it in Switzerland and he was in L.A., but we were talking quite regularly about how we would do it. Then it went from that conversation to maybe doing an album together: Wouldn't it be great, him producing an album of jazz standards with me singing? It's still something we'd like to do. And I said I've always wanted to take a big band out. And he said, "However I can help you, I'll help you." Now, running parallel with that, I did an M7V Unplugged program in '94, and in that show my rock band did a couple jazz-influenced tunes that I'd written, with me playing the drums. And the audience went bananas, because I was playing the drums, but also because they had never beard anything like this. It is weird, but people do respond when they hear something that's kind of exciting and they're not exposed to regularly. And I thought, "People do want to hear this, and I do want to do it." Then, in 1996, Claude Nobs at Montreux - whom I've known for years because he's my record company boss in Switzerland - he said, "You have a whole night to yourself. We've got Quincy coming for his 50th anniversary of music. He's having his own night. What do you want to do?" I said, "Well, I haven't got a band, any kind of band. It would be fun to do a big band, but it's a bit too much of a thing to put together right now." He said, "Oh, it's no problem. Quincy will help you." He recommended some guys to play, and suddenly, it was happening. Quincy at that point agreed to conduct. I sang three or four songs on his night. He was giving up his rehearsal time to be with us, which I thought was great. We rehearsed in Montreux, then we went to London, did the Queen and Mandela concert, then two shows at the Monaco sporting club, which paid for the whole tour. Then he went off and we flew without a pilot, but he caught up and he did the last two Montreux shows. So he did four out of the eight shows. But he's always been very supportive. In L.A., just on this tour, he made a big speech about the whole thing with the sponsors and what I was doing, and then he came at the end to conduct two tunes, "Do Nothing" and "Sussudio." He lectured the audience about how great it was that they stayed there and listened. Some people left because I wasn't singing.

EE: Do you have plans to record this group?

PC: We've recorded six of the eight shows from the last tour, and we've videoed two. We're also recording seven or eight nights of the European tour and videoing two shows in Montreux. So there will be a live video and also definitely a live album. There could have been one before, although I'm glad there wasn't because I've learned so much since that tour. I'd much rather this tour be represented than that. It got to a point where we were closer to this tour than we were to that tour, so we thought we'd wait and put one out before the end of the year or the beginning of next year. Plans are afoot to go through the material at the end of the tour, then get someone to mix it. To me, I want this record to sound like a Count Basie record! Sinatra At The Sands, that's what I want it to sound like. I want it to have that magic. DB

Equipment:

When performing with the big band, Phil Collins plays a white pearl Gretsch drum kit with 20x16 bass drum, 18x18 floor tom, 16x16 floor tom, 14x12 rack tom, 12x10 rack tom, 10x8 rack tom and Ludwig Radio King snare drum. His cymbals are Sabians, including 16-inch, 18-inch and 20-inch HH crashes, 22-inch dry ride, 21-inch ride sizzle and 15-inch AA hi-hats. His top drumheads are Remo coated Ambassadors, and the bottoms are Remo clear Ambassadors. He uses Pro-Mark Phil Collins signature sticks and Regal Tip brushes.

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