Pianist Robin hopes to make it big

JON WELCH Encouraged by the success of Jamie Cullum, another Twenty-Something jazz musician is hoping to make it big. Jon Welch meets pianist and singer Robin Phillips.

JON WELCH

Jamie Cullum may be sweeping all before him, but another young jazz musician has his sights set on crossover success.

Pianist and singer Robin Phillips, of Norwich, hopes Cullum may have opened a few doors for him and his new album The Last Bar.

An entirely home-made affair, the album features new versions of 14 classic tunes.

"There were some jazz standards I just love and had to put on it: My Funny Valentine, Summertime and tunes like that," he said.

"But there are also tunes that maybe people don't know, like Everything Happens to Me and My Romance.

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"I knew I wanted to do some instrumentals so I decided to do Impressions by John Coltrane."

Robin, 26, has previously recorded his own original material, but reckons this album of covers is his best work yet and is hoping it will launch him on the UK and international jazz scene.

"Being a professional musician has got to be one of the hardest jobs in the world," he said.

"I thought now was not the time to convince the world about my ability as a songwriter and as a composer."

A public relations consultant by trade, Robin is putting his professional skills to good use in marketing the album and hopes to get a record deal by the end of the year.

He began playing the trumpet at the age of eight, but soon graduated to the piano, having lessons with his two cousins.

"I got through to Grade Five and my teenage years, and I really lost interest in classical - and then I discovered jazz."

His epiphany came on a residential music course in his native Surrey. "I was 13 years old, playing third trumpet in the wind band, and it was horrible, seven hours' practising a day.

"We sat there in this concert and played our classical number - and then the jazz band started up.

"This drummer started off, then a bass player, a guitarist, and a massive horn section, and I thought 'I don't want to be sitting here - I want to be sitting there'."

He applied for the jazz course the following year, again as a trumpet player. "As soon as I arrived the piano player had cancelled, and they said, 'Does anyone play piano?' I said, 'Well, a little bit'.

"In one of the breaks we were just jamming and singing along, and they said 'Oh, you can sing'.

"When we arrived I was meant to be playing trumpet. By the Saturday I was playing piano and singing in front of 2000 people."

He went on to join the Surrey County Youth Jazz Orchestra before coming to university in Norwich in 1996.

He played in the UEA Big Band, continuing to work on his solo singing and playing in his spare time.

Performances in musical theatre productions came next, both in Norwich and Vancouver, where he studied for a year.

On his return to Norwich in 2000 he started gigging on his own and formed a jazz trio. He still performs regularly at Café Bar Marzano at the Forum, Norwich, where he will launch his album tomorrow.

Robin, who has a lot of respect for Cullum, admits the young star's success acted as a catalyst.

"I remember Jamie blowing up a couple of years ago, and I thought 'That's what I do - I just haven't put it down anywhere yet'," he said.

"He's been so successful in what he's done, and so many jazz musicians can't stand him, and I think that's unfair.

"Jamie can play. Jamie believes in jazz - he's a jazz musician through and through - and he's opened it up.

"Hopefully, if the fact that he exists means people are more likely to go out and see jazz then it's good news, really."

Robin decided to record his album without any of the musicians he often plays with.

"I've played in bands - big bands, soul bands, jazz quartets, trios, duos - but I wanted to be able to be completely in control of it and stretch myself, but also make sure it got done.

"Even today, I've still got 100 copies of a CD I made with a band I was in. We had the CDs finished in the studio and we had all of the covers but we never got round to cutting them out and putting them in."

There were no such problems this time around. Robin, who has his own home studio, recorded the tracks at a former chapel in Park Lane, Norwich.

Robin managed to keep the project's entire budget under £2000, calling in favours from some friends, who designed the album artwork and his website, and mixed and mastered the CD.

"They didn't just do a botch job to help a friend out, they put a lot of time and devotion into it, and I think - I hope - that's because they really believed in it."

Cullum, Britain's best-selling British jazz artist, was named Artist of the Year at the BBC Jazz Awards. At the same ceremony Robin's idol Oscar Peterson, 79, won the Lifetime Achievement award and Gwilym Simcock was named Newcomer of the Year,

"That's the next step for me and I hope if all goes well to be included in an award ceremony like this next year," he says.

t The Last Bar by Robin Phillips is available, priced £10 plus postage and packaging, from www.robinphillipsmusic.com. It's also on sale in the following Norwich outlets: The Last Wine Bar and St George's Music Shop, St George's Street; Bedford's, Bedford Street; Pasha, Bridewell Alley; Music Room, St Benedict's; Gibson Music, St John Maddermarket; Elkin Music, Exchange Street; and Prelude Records, St Giles' Street.

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