Jay Phelps

“There is an aspect of learning how to play to people, and learning how to play to an audience of all kinds, whether they’re small or large or knowledgeable or not knowledgeable.”Jay Phelps

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Vancouver born trumpeter Jay Phelps has been a prominent and distinguished figure on the international Jazz circuit. His precocious talent was evident early on when he became the youngest ever band-leader at the Vancouver International Jazz Festival. In 1999 aged seventeen, a fresh-faced Jay relocated to London and was soon welcomed by prominent bass player and band leader Gary Crosby into the Jazz Jamaica family in 2002; earning his stripes as a Tomorrow’s Warrior. As co-leader of the vibrant and happening jazz quartet ‘Empirical’ Jay created more waves amongst his peers and beyond. It was not long before his CV began to look mightily impressive, sharing stages with global Jazz names such as Andrew Hill, Courtney Pine, George Benson, John Hendricks, Wynton Marsalis, Dennis Rollins, Hugh Masekela and many more. Michael J Edwards caught up with the effervescent horn player prior to his supporting role with Moyses Dos Santos and Friends at Pizza Express, Soho in London to gain further insight into the man and his forth-coming projects.

Michael J Edwards: Greetings Jay Phelps; it’s good to link with you.

Jay Phelps: It’s good to link with you too.

Michael J Edwards: I understand that you started playing a trumpet of sorts when you were about eleven years of age, having transitioned from the piano?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Jay Phelps: I got very frustrated with the piano at a young age. And then when I picked up the trumpet it was a bit more natural; so I kind of stuck with it from then on. Then my mother booked me straight into lessons right away, so there’s no time for messing around…So she put me onto the trumpet. I actually studied the trumpet at an arts school, which was an hour away from where I lived. The mothers who were taking their kids to the arts school would all car pool and stuff like that.

Michael J Edwards: And this was in Vancouver?

Jay Phelps: This was in Vancouver yes when I was eleven. So for one year I went to this arts school was giving us basically all the arts and everything for half the day; and then academics for half the day too. So it was one of those situations where I got to actually come to the instrument a year before everyone at my previous school. So then when I went back I was better than everyone; I already had a head start. It did take me a few years to properly take it upon myself to practice and stuff like that; I had to be told, “Practice and you’ll like it after a while”. It took a bit of time, then I did, and then I liked it! I think that first year kind of gave me the confidence to keep going.

Michael J Edwards: Does the musical gene extend further back in your family?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Jay Phelps: It does, yes. My grandfather was a pianist, he was almost like a Nat King Cole sort of type; he was a pianist and singer in Montréal. He was originally from Montserrat in the Caribbean. When he was young the family moved up to Boston, and then he moved up to Montréal. So that’s my mother’s father; I never met him, but I guess the genes will be in there in some kind of way.

Michael J Edwards: I believe you were seventeen years old when you moved to the UK. How and when we spotted by Gary Crosby?

Jay Phelps: Actually when I was sixteen I came to visit London with my mother. We were checking out whether or not we wanted to do move out here. My uncle Joe Bashorun is a musician; he used to play with Courtney Pine and Gary (Crosby). He introduced my mother to Gary, and my mother was like, “My son plays trumpet,” and so I got involved in the Tomorrow’s Warriors thing.

Michael J Edwards: That must have been “an education” for you?

Jay Phelps: Yes, that was “an education!”

Michael J Edwards: What did you draw from that experience?

Jay Phelps: It was just great to be able to perform, to play to people. That’s another side of this whole journey of being a musician, especially a Jazz musician. You spend a lot of time by yourself, and a lot of time practising; but also you have to then put that into practice. And if you don’t put that into practice, you’ll just sounding like a bedroom musician. There is an aspect of learning how to play to people, and learning how to play to an audience of all kinds, whether they’re small or large or knowledgeable or not knowledgeable. There are lots of different permutations of how to go about it; so I think most of all the Tomorrow’s Warriors thing gave us a platform to be able to perform to people.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Michael J Edwards: Between what ages were you with Tomorrow’s Warriors?

Jay Phelps: From when I was twenty-two to around twenty-three/twenty-four.

Michael J Edwards: Your group Empirical, why was that started, and did it serve its purpose?

Jay Phelps: Yes it did serve its purpose – it was me, Nathaniel Facey and Shane E. Forbes. We were the main protagonists, and basically what happened was we were supposed to continue with the Tomorrow’s Warriors thing. We were supposed to record with the Tomorrow’s Warriors, but we were wondering whether we wanted to stick with Dune (Records), or whether we wanted to be in a band situation. So we all kinda made the decision to leave Dune, and to leave Gary (Crosby) and everything to pursue our own destiny. That’s when Courtney Pine got involved, and he produced our first album in 2007. And we subsequently built up quite a following from then on.

Michael J Edwards: In 2010 you released “Jay Walkin'”, your first solo album. Please tell me about it and how it came to fruition?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Jay Phelps: “Jay Walkin'” was my first solo album and it was with Proper Records and their Jazz label was called ‘Specific Records. That was released in 2010 a long time ago now! So I had like a one album sort of deal with them, and I was able to bring in the people who I wanted to get together at that time.

Michael J Edwards: Who were?

Jay Phelps: Who were Shabaka Hutchings (sax), Jonathan Gee (piano), Gene Calderazzo (drums), Karl Rashid-Able (bass), Brian Edwards (sax), John Toussaint (tenor sax) and Dennis Rollins (trombone). So it was great, it was the first solo project of my own having come out of the ‘Empirical’ thing.

Michael J Edwards: What was the time difference between leaving Empirical and your debut solo album?

Jay Phelps: It was two years after 2010, so a long time ago now.

Michael J Edwards: Where was the album recorded?

Jay Phelps: It was recorded in Proper Records; they have a studio in London. So that was released then, so I and I toured that and did as much as I could do with that, and I haven’t recorded anything of my own since!

Michael J Edwards: What new projects are you working on now?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Jay Phelps: I just recorded an EP for my new quartet, which has a slightly different sound to what I’ve been used to. I’ve been doing a lot of hard bop and be-bop and stuff like that; so I’m kind of venturing into more contemporary modern-day sounds. I’m hoping to get a good backing for this one, a good label and some good support behind this one. So I’m taking my time and I’m starting to shop this EP around to try to get a good label behind me. This will be my second album coming out, and I’m trying to focus on this new quartet, writing loads of new stuff, and just trying to get with the modern-day times. I’m singing a little bit too.

Michael J Edwards: What other musicians make up the quartet on this new album?

Jay Phelps: Shane E Forbes on drums, Mark Lewandowski is on the double bass, and Rick Simpson is on piano. And it’s a great band, the guys are killing and they really know how to play my music well.

Michael J Edwards: What are your views on the present state of UK Jazz music?

Jay Phelps: It’s really good right now, it’s really thriving. There’s more places to play than there was ever before; there’s more young musicians getting more involved in Jazz I think. More so than in our generation, we had just a couple of us in our generation coming up. Nowadays there are more and more artists taking it upon themselves to host different nights, and to put different things together rather than just waiting for other people to call them. There’s a lot of young talent coming through, especially black talent.

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Michael J Edwards: Any names in particular that have caught your ear?

Jay Phelps: Mark Kavuma on trumpet, Reuben James on piano, Reuben Fox. I’m not just talking about black kids, but there’s just been a lot more talented black kids than ever before; that’s why I say it, because it’s nice to see. Also look out for Ardi Zeits on guitar and Jacamo Smith on saxophone.

Michael J Edwards: Tell me about the horn you play? What makes have you played in the past and what make do you play now?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Jay Phelps: I’m still with Eclipse; Eclipse is the company that sponsors me. This is one of their newer models of their horns, and I really like it! Although I did sit on it in the first week that I got it, so the valves aren’t really as smooth as I would want them to be.

Michael J Edwards: Dizzy Gillespie bent his trumpet, and that’s what gave him his distinctive sound/voice.

Jay Phelps: It’s true! (Laughs)

Michael J Edwards: I understand you have a plethora of musical influences ranging from Clifford Brown, Louis Armstrong, Fats Navarro and Miles Davis. What impact did these guys have on you?

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

Jay Phelps: It’s about hearing the best of the best, knowing the history of music, knowing who to check out and stuff like that. In the music everyone is different, so I’m really about the quality of sound and timbre, that’s what I really love most of all when I play. It’s not about me, but when I hear people play and when I hear music, I try to mimic that as much as possible, especially big warm sounds and stuff like that. So the people who have that quality, I’m attracted to them.

Michael J Edwards: What final thoughts and advice do you have for the young musicians out there aspiring to play trumpet?

Jay Phelps: Just try to get out and see as much live music as possible. Seeing live music, that’s it really. It’s important, it’s really important!

Michael J Edwards: Thank you for your time Jay.

Jay Phelps: Yes sir, thank you.

Michael J Edwards

Essential Website: http://jayphelpsmusic.net/

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Photo: Courtesy of David S. James

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