Acclaimed smooth jazz musician Phil Denny talks about how Richard Elliot, Boney James and Grover Washington Jr. influenced his own playing. Check out the albums at Local Spins.
EDITOR’S NOTE: All musicians can trace their inspiration to key recordings that influenced their careers. Writer Ross Boissoneau today showcases music that changed the world for Lansing jazz saxophonist Phil Denny. Scroll down for a Spotify playlist of his picks along with Denny’s most recent single and a track from a recent EP.
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Phil Denny wanted to play trumpet. His high school band director had other ideas, and handed him an alto saxophone.
“Like many kids in middle school I took band as an elective,” he says. In seventh grade, he switched to tenor which he found really spoke to him. Denny played in all the bands in school, from marching band to concert band to jazz band, and got a scholarship to Blue Lake Fine Arts Camp. He joined the jazz band at Lansing Community College while still in high school at Lansing Everett, and continued to play in college as he earned a degree in business administration.
He landed in pharmaceutical sales, then moved into the mortgage industry, but always continued playing his sax. That led to restarting a band he’d had in high school, and they got a steady gig at the 621 Bar in Lansing.
“That became the platform” for his music, he says, a style similar to that of his idols, from Dave Sanborn to Euge Groove, Fourplay to the Jazzmasters. He started his own yearly festival, the Armory Smooth Jazz Fete, which brings together various local, regional and international jazz artists representing various styles of contemporary jazz.
The 45-year-old who’s had two No. 1 charting singles at Billboard still works in the real estate industry, but there’s no mistaking that music is his true love. He also is grateful for where it’s taken him. “Now I’ve met Boney James. I have Dave Koz’s phone number. There’s a sense of community in the genre.”
(Attention Jazz Fans: The Local Spins Wednesdays series will feature Grand Rapids’ Evidence Jazz at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday (Oct. 11) at SpeakEZ Lounge in downtown Grand Rapids. Details here.)
1. Richard Elliot, “On The Town” (1991) – I really fell in love with the robust, silky-smooth sound he offered. I spent countless hours in the basement trying to match his tone, learn the melodies and grooves. I’d play “Stiletto Heels” (one of the tracks on the album). This was after he was in Tower of Power. I actually didn’t learn he was in Tower of Power until many years later.
Listen: “Stiletto Heels”
2. Boney James, “Backbone” (1994) – I discovered him in the early 90s. It (his music) really resonated with me. I have r&b in my soul, and couldn’t get away from groove and melody lines. The lyricism he has – and Richard Elliot too – they make the sax sound like a voice. It speaks to me. When I listened to Boney James records it really set it off for me. Smooth jazz is built on r&b, groove and improvisation.
3. Grover Washington Jr., “Winelight” (1980) – I ordered so much from BMG: Duke Ellington, Stan Getz, Sonny Stitt, Coltrane, Stanley Turrentine. Then I picked this up at a thrift shop. When Iistened to this I fell in love with Grover. “Soulful Strut,” “Mister Magic,” “Black Frost” all fell in the pocket. I’d play and improvise. Grover did long improvisations.
Listen: “Just the Two of Us”
Currently Loving: Wayne Shorter – 2023 is a completely different time. I’m a big Spotify listener, though I don’t agree with the pay structure. I navigate through a play list. I did watch the documentary “Zero Gravity” on Wayne Shorter. It took me back to a re-understanding of what it is to appreciate (jazz). You get caught up in the day to day. What is my goal? Is it honest? Where does it come from? It stopped me in my tracks.
Watch: “Zero Gravity” (Podcast on the Documentary)
ALBUMS THAT CHANGED THE WORLD: Phil Denny’s Playlist on Spotify
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