Following his musical instincts

CATCHING UP WITH...Phil Collins

Never a one-track talent, singer/drummer/composer Phil Collins has now moved from pop and jazz to big band

August 08, 1999|By J.D. Considine | J.D. Considine,Sun Pop Music Critic

Stardom in pop music, as elsewhere in the entertainment world, is to a certain extent all about image. Think of Bruce Springsteen, and you imagine a workingman's rock star, all honest sweat and no-frills integrity. Thnink of Eric Clapton, on the other hand, and what comes up is the noble suffering of a man who truly does have the right to sing the blues.

But what image appears when we think of Phil Collins? Is it the cheerfully entertaining showman who led Genesis through such hits as "Invisible Touch"? Or is it the heart-worn singer/songwriter who laid bare his suffering in "One More Night" and "In the Air Tonight"? Is Collins the savvy tunesmith whose score for Disney's animated feature "Tarzan" has been one of the summer's biggest pop hits? Or is he actually the jazz-fan drummer who seems so proud of his new big-band album, "A Hot Night in Paris"?

"People should know that nothing is Phil Collins!" he chortles over the phone from his home in Switzerland. "There is no Phil Collins," he continues, pumping his voice mock-portentously. "It is a many-headed beast, and will continue to be so."

He laughs, but deep down, Collins is dead serious. Where other pop stars are known for just one thing -- a certain band, a specific sound, an individual aesthetic -- Collins, 48, has made a point throughout his career of doing many things. He sings. He drums. He plays piano. He writes songs. He produces albums. He plays sessions.

"I'm constantly surprised that people are amazed that you do more than one thing," he says. "It seems to me to be [natural]. Playing for 25 years with just three other guys -- that, to me, is a bit weird."

Collins' career bears this out. Back in the '70s, when he was chiefly known as the singing drummer who stepped up to the mike when Peter Gabriel left Genesis, Collins had quite a few irons in the fire. Whenever he had time free from Genesis, he drummed with the jazz-fusion band Brand X and did session work with avant-rockers Brian Eno and John Cale.

Things became busier still once he started making his own recordings in 1981. Not only did Collins maintain dual careers as both a solo artist and a member of Genesis, but he produced albums for Eric Clapton ("Behind the Sun"), former Earth, Wind & Fire singer Phillip Bailey ("Chinese Wall") and others. He even found time for a film career, starring in the English bank-robber comedy "Buster."

Yet for all his many efforts, there were still things Collins hankered to do. Like play in a big band.

It seems odd that a man who has drummed with some of the biggest names in English rock -- who, at Live Aid, filled in for John Bonham during Led Zeppelin's reunion set -- would secretly harbor fantasies of playing like Sonny Payne in the Count Basie Orchestra. But Collins has been a closet big-band fan since the '60s, when he stumbled onto the 1966 Buddy Rich album "Swingin' New Big Band."

"Blew me away completely," he says of the recording. "Never heard anything like it. Still sounds fresh today, in fact."

How did he end up listening to Rich in the first place? "We drummers tend to listen to anything and everything," he answers. "As opposed to some keyboard players or guitar players, maybe, who get a bit more specific in their areas of music. Drummers spread their net pretty wide.

"I heard ['Swingin' New Big Band'] at the same time I was listening to the Beatles and Motown and Stax and all that stuff," he adds. "So I went out and bought all the Buddy Rich albums, big-band stuff I could find. And then I discovered Count Basie, and [drummers] Sonny Payne and Harold Jones, and people like this. I suddenly realized that there was some happening stuff here."

He wasn't the only one. Bill Bruford, who at the time was playing drums for Yes, was also a big-band fan -- "It may have been Bill that played me the Buddy Rich album," Collins muses -- and incorporated some of those ideas into his own music. "The early Yes arrangements were very influenced by big bands," says Collins. "You know, they did 'Something's Coming' from 'West Side Story,' and 'America' by Paul Simon, but in much more interesting arrangements."

For his own part, Collins feels that there are moments on old Genesis albums -- particularly "Get 'Em out by Friday" from the album "Foxtrot," and "The Fountain of Salmacis" from "Nursery Cryme" -- that found him drumming as if part of a big band. "If you imagine a horn section instead of the organ, actually, it kind of fits," he says.

Even so, it was years before Collins felt confident enough to attempt playing in a real big band. "There was so much work that I had to do," he says. "I had to learn how to play with brushes. I had to learn much more dynamic control. I had to remember these incredibly complex arrangements.

"It was a challenge, but I rise to those kind of challenges."

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