Bassist Joseph Phillips is laid back – and loving it!

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

Joseph Phillips (photo courtesy of the artist)

As I sit at Art of Time Ensemble’s final season concert last Saturday, I have one eye fixed, detective-like, on bassist Joseph Phillips. This is my opportunity to confirm an incidental comment made by 5 at the First’s Artistic Director, cellist Rachel Mercer in her “Young Person’s Guide to Cello Extravaganza IV”, which you can read here. She said that, in her experience, she has found that the cellists are the “laid back” ones of the strings section . . . though not as laid back as the bass players. Time to see for myself!  Depending on the musical number, Phillips switches effortlessly between the upright and his electric bass. Sometimes he plucks, sometimes he bows, and sometimes he beats a percussive rhythm against the side of his bass. And yes, all the while, he seems remarkably chill, grooving to the evocative arrangements.

So far, Mercer is so right.

A few days later, Phillips is preparing to perform the 5 at the First’s season-finale concert on May 20 –  which also features preeminent piano quartet Ensemble Made in Canada (EMIC) composed of Angela Park (piano), Elissa Lee (violin), Rachel Mercer (cello) and Sharon Wei (viola). The classical-based program, featuring compositions by Bach, Rossini, Murphy, and Vaughan Williams, looks varied and atmospheric, with plenty to make it both relaxed and lively.  Phillips confirms this: “There’s a lot of great music in our May 20 concert. I’ll start with a performance of J.S. Bach’s 2nd cello suite, performed on the double bass.” Though this brings with it some “huge challenges” he admits that, like many string players, he loves the process of learning Bach solo repertoire: “There’s just so much beautiful inventiveness to appreciate and explore.”

EMIC: Sharon Wei, Angela Park, Rachel Mercer, Elissa Lee; photo by Bo Huang

The Vaughan-Williams quintet, he then notes, is a lush, romantic piece that includes many beautiful, melodic lines for the bass: “I’ve never played it before, so I’m really looking forward to it.” He and Mercer have known each other for over 20 years, and he deems any opportunity to play with her “a pleasure … especially when it’s just the two of us!”  Happily, members of Saturday’s concert can share this pleasure when they perform a lively rendition of The Rossini Duetto, a “real crowd-pleaser filled with beautiful Rossini melodies, humour and some virtuosic fireworks!”

Born and raised in Toronto, Phillips’ musical education began with classical guitar lessons at the age of 9, before he moved to the clarinet while a student at Oakwood CI. During this time, he discovered the double bass, then went on to study it with the renowned artist Joel Quarrington. Known for his versatility, Phillips is a highly-regarded and in-demand chamber, jazz and orchestra musician, who plays principal bass in Orchestra London Canada. His genre-spanning collaborations include the Art of Time Ensemble, Jayme Stone’s Folklife, and Payadora Tango Ensemble. And in addition to collaborations with various independent Canadian artists, he also participates in the Sweetwater Music weekend in Owen Sound, Ontario every year.

Joseph Phillips (photo courtesy of the artist)

Such varied and regular collaborations mean that Phillips gets to play nearly every style of music in different-sized groups, for diverse audiences at disparate venues. No matter where or for whom he performs, a great performance happens the same way,  “when the performers can communicate directly to the audience, no matter what kind of music is being played.” Thinking about his many collaborations and performances, two questions immediately come to mind. The first is, what happens in the unlikely event of a mistake during a live performance? “As an audience member, I don’t tend to remember mistakes,” offers Phillips. “We’re human, and these things happen.” And frankly, the audience might not perceive a mistake . . . but what about the other musicians? To Phillips, an error is just a minor detail . . . , and one that might, in fact, yield an opportunity to improvise or “take the music in another direction, a little moment of chaos that gives you new ideas!” Obviously, he knows and is confident in his art. And clearly, it doesn’t hurt to be so laid-back.

The second question is this: given Phillips’ longstanding experience as an in-demand musician, does he ever feel starstruck when performing with an artist he admires? Phillips admits that he “may have been a bit anxious leading up to rehearsals with [certain] performers whose reputation precedes them.” I notice that he doesn’t name anyone specific – and focuses instead on the camaraderie of musicians: “I find that once we get to work, that feeling disappears, and the fun and joy of playing music takes over. I think that all musicians, from the tiniest kid taking their first violin lessons to the most acclaimed artists are part of my ‘tribe’. We have this beautiful thing in common and can relate to each other in a unique way.”

So to recap… my scrutiny of Phillips’ live performance – plus his measured, considered responses to my questions – confirm Mercer’s pronouncement. And Phillips concurs: “Cellists do seem to be pretty laid back. Yep, I’d say bassists even more so!” If this interview is any indication, indeed they are. And of Phillips I can also say that he is gracious and warm, without any trace of ego. During Canada’s sesquicentennial year, Saturday’s final 5 at the First concert is a welcome opportunity to hear gorgeous music, interpreted by Phillips and EMIC – 5 of Canada’s finest musicians.

Now what could be more tranquil than that?

EMIC: Elissa Lee, Angela Park, Sharon Wei, Rachel Mercer; photo by Bo Huang

News You Can Use

What: EMIC: Angela Park (piano), Elissa Lee (violin), Rachel Mercer (cello), Sharon Wei (viola) and Joseph Phillips (bass)

Who: Audiences of all ages

When: Saturday, May 20, 2017, 3:00 PM

Where: First Unitarian Church, 170 Dundurn Street South, Hamilton, ON


© 2017 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya

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