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Mike Phillips: 'Uncommon Denominator'

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Mike Phillips: 'Uncommon Denominator'


Mike Phillips: 'Uncommon Denominator'

Mike Phillips: 'Uncommon Denominator'

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Saxophonist Mike Phillips decided to play professionally by the age of 16, taking his cues from legendary sax player Grover Washington. Phillips discusses mixing business with jazz, touring with Prince and his new CD, Uncommon Denominator.

(Soundbite of saxophone music)

ED GORDON, host:

Mike Phillips is probably unlike any other sax man you've heard or heard about. He's taken his cues from saxophone legend Grover Washington. He's toured with the likes of Stevie Wonder and Prince. But his creativity extends far beyond music. His latest CD, "Uncommon Denominator," fits his career and his approach to life.

(Soundbite of saxophone music)

Mr. MIKE PHILLIPS (Musician): I will be a slave to my own voice, my own fingerprint. Now I'll be influenced by the greats, like Charlie Parker, Coltrane, Sonny Rollins, Sonny Stitt and Duke Ellington, Ella. But then I have to take all of these things, put it in a pot, stir them around and add my own individuality.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Woman: Ladies and gentlemen, once again, Mike Phillips, Mike Phillips.

Mr. PHILLIPS: "Uncommon Denominator" is that whole energy of also just listening to, you know, my soul and the voice that I know God has blessed me with but also being influenced by other things.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: You know what's interesting, too, Mike, from the beginning, you've taken this on as a career, not just a music career; I mean, all of the elements that shape Mike Phillips are far and away what is--I consider to be maybe on the cutting edge of what we'll see in the future. You've been interesting in how you decided to take your career.

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, the musician thing is fine and it's great but such a bigger vision.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. PHILLIPS: What I want to do is--how Grover, how he influenced me--I want to be able to have a career that the next young cat that's nine years old right now, that's practicing, sort of like I want to take up the mantle of Grover and George Howard and Art Porter and just influence other kids to not be afraid to play their horn and attack the music seriously.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Unlike many musicians, you have found sponsors outside of the traditional musician sponsors. You have a long-standing commitment with Brand Jordan. For those that don't know, that's the clothing line, the offshoot of Michael Jordan's association with Nike. How did that come about? And tell us about it.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Well, I used to play national anthems all the time for sporting events and a tape got back to Larry Miller and Howard White, the presidents of Brand Jordan, the vice president and president. Howard White said, you know, watching me playing the anthem was like watching MJ play his first game and Marvin Gaye sing.

When you look at lifestyle now, lifestyle is everything. And just the normal guy, the normal musician, trying to reach greatness is truly marketable. Just the association with the Brand is really cool because it brings another, you know, breath of fresh air in for other musicians and other people that want to do something unconventional.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Let me ask you this. Let's get to the new project. I'm curious about one of the tunes on there. You have a song on there called "Uptown on a Saturday Night."

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yes, yes.

GORDON: Any association with the movie?

Mr. PHILLIPS: You know, you're the first person that asked that. And that's one of my favorite movies, man.

GORDON: Mine, too, that's why I asked.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Yeah, yeah. We wanted to name it that but I wasn't sure about how we can legally get that done, so then I started thinking about this new Harlem Renaissance, where people are going uptown now to enjoy theirselves.

(Soundbite of "Uptown on a Saturday Night")

Mr. PHILLIPS: (Singing) Uptown on a Saturday night.

So the vision of the song changed from the movie to now looking at this whole new renaissance and business that's happening up in Harlem and now, like, the title--you know, we don't have to go downtown. We can have fun uptown on a Saturday night right here in Harlem.

(Soundbite of "Musicology")

PRINCE: (Singing) Heard about the party now, just east of Harlem.

GORDON: One of the other interesting things that you've been able to do, and, I would suspect, as a musician, this must rank up there, you played with Prince on the "Musicology" tour.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Wow. Greatest experience of my life, man.

(Soundbite of "Musicology")

PRINCE: (Singing) This is just another one of God's gifts. Musicology. Gotta keep the party movin'.

Mr. PHILLIPS: It's phenomenal the level of perfection that he wants to reach. Like, for instance, we would--after the show was over, we would, you know, take a shower, then come back to his room, do an after-party, like he always does, then go back to his room at 1 and watch the whole show on DVD to about 4:00, get our yellow pad and take notes and address those changes the next day in our show.

It helps all of us--this is not just music and that's why the show always grew. It grew to, like, a level that we didn't even understand it can grow, because Prince was always making sure that we were--had our yellow pads and make sure we did the minor things like standing in the light, making sure our intonation was correct, making sure that the in-air monitors were at a certain level, make sure that the lighting people didn't miss their cues. And, I'm telling you, that dude is absolutely amazing.

GORDON: Well, if surrounding yourself with great people is any indication of what you bring to the table, Mike, you've obviously done that on the new CD, too. You--we should say that you collaborate with other greats like Rex Rideout, who's been on the program here, Dwight Sills, Jeff Lorber...

Mr. PHILLIPS: Rex, he's my man. Yes.

GORDON: ...just many people, and the latest CD is "Uncommon Denominator."

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: And if you love good saxophone playing, like the tradition of his idols before him, Grover Washington and the late George Howard, Mike Phillips delivers. Good to talk to you, man.

Mr. PHILLIPS: Good to talk to you, man. And I'll get up with you soon, man.

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Mike Phillips' latest CD is called "Uncommon Denominator."

(Soundbite of music)

GORDON: Thanks for joining us. That's our program for today. To listen to the show, visit And if you'd like to comment, give us a call at (202) 408-3330. NEWS & NOTES was created by NPR News and the African-American Public Radio Consortium.

I'm Ed Gordon. This is NEWS & NOTES.

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