At dinner with Jack Phillips last month, he was telling me the setlist for the performance at “Don’t Tell Mama” and I said then what I’ll say now: there isn’t enough original material. Of the 12 songs played Tuesday night, four were originals off the piano players terrific ode to the city Cafe Nights In New York, two were mainstream rock piano players covers, one Kern/Hammerstein obscurity, one was a nursery rhyme and four were pages out of the great American songbook.
It made for a concept program, an ode to the city that Jack loves, “made of cement and steel and love and pain”. There are nine songs expressly about the city in the 55 minute set and the images accumulate, as do the sounds, and with the exception of Elton John’s “Mona Lisa’s And Mad Hatters” relentless in their vision of Manhattan as the height of romance. A Manhattan that never really existed outside a Fred Astaire movie but Phillips is the personification of the old John Updike quote: “The true New Yorker secretly believes that people living anywhere else have to be, in some sense, kidding.”
Right in the middle of the set is a five song suite of Manhattan songs the first two are a classic and an original another classic, and completed with the piano guys covers. I understand why he sang the Elton and Billy Joel covers, Phillips is currently working on an album with John’s guitarist on “Mona Lisas And Mad Hatters” Caleb Quayle and Phillips earlier albums have a John feel: they are classic piano rockers and ballads. The Billy Joel cover is less acceptable. Nobody needs to hear “New York State Of Mind” again, it is not a good song to play. If you do it well, nobody notices. if you perform it poorly you’ll get lynched. Phillips doesn’t embarrass himself and, mind you I am listening to raw audio, no sweetening, no rounding out bum notes, no nothing, but I would much much much preferred he had dumped both and gone back to his own stuff. I would have vastly preferred a re-arranged “The Trip Will Make You well” off his 2010 To Whom It May Concern or “Let’s Drink To Us” with its gorgeous clarinet introduction or… It would have stymied the New York City concept but I think the set would’ve been the better for it.
All the other songs in the set are very good but his own songs are even more than that. The best song of the evening is a rollicking, swinging “The Old Gray Hat” with Phillips channeling Presley in the vocal and the band lead by Bobby Short’s former drummer Klaus Suonsaari chasing the beat all over the place and Phillips best solo on piano. It cranks it up and blows the audience away. The other three originals “Take Me To Manhattan” “125th Street In Harlem” and ” I Remember Paris And You” all work for me. And “Manhattan” and “Boys And Girls Together” are perfection. The former opens the evening and compares favorably to Bobby Short’s original.
So how good was Phillips at Don’t Tell Me Mama? You can decide for yourself on July 5th when he is back at “Don’t Tell Mama” , but he was great and when he wasn’t great he was very good. The band were pros and played like it and Phillips was a charming, easeful presence with charisma to spare.
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