Matt Phillips is a British writer, musician and record executive whose work has been featured in publications including Jazzwise, Classic Pop, The Oldie, Record Collector, Uncut, MOJO, The Guardian and London Jazz News.
His new book on guitar legend John McLaughlin follows an in-depth dive into the the prestigious catalogue of jazz/funk/pop supergroup Level 42 called ‘Every Album, Every Song.‘
He’s worked as Universal Music’s Jazz Catalogue Manager looking after imprints like Blue Note, Impulse, Verve, ECM and Concord and, as a musician, has performed and recorded with artists including Shez Raja, Anthony Joseph, Billy Cobham and Jean Toussaint.
All this varied experience gives him a rather unique view of the industry; he agreed to answer some questions so we could dive into this multi-facted career.
Read on for the full interview, and thanks to Matt for taking part!
Your background includes writing about music, playing music and working at a major record label. How did this portfolio of roles come about and how do they influence each other?
I guess the appreciation of music came first, then the playing, then the writing and everything else. I started out as just a huge music fan – the late 1970s and early ‘80s saw some brilliant pop music, from Ian Dury to George Benson, Adam Ant to Michael Jackson, and there was the crackle of political unrest in the air too. You couldn’t escape the fact that, say, The Specials’ ‘Ghost Town’ and The Jam’s ‘A Town Called Malice’ had a lot to say about contemporary life, politics, racial issues.
But that music – plus a soupcon of jazz and fusion too – got me interested in picking up the drum sticks (well, knitting needles first…). I had been playing music professionally – everything from covers bands to jazz and prog-pop – for over ten years before I even thought about writing about it, apart from a couple of things at school, and even then maybe I wouldn’t have dipped my toes into writing without the Jazzwise Write Stuff course which ran on the South Bank during the London Jazz Festival of 2003.
After that I got the bug and from then on the three disciplines ran pretty much concurrently and always feed into each other.
Do you think today’s emerging jazz musicians could benefit from working on both sides of the industry and, if so, why?
I don’t think it could ever hurt a jazz musician to be interested in writing and the business side of things. It never hurt people like Ian Carr and Mike Zwerin, though there may also be a bit of a ‘telling tales out of school’ element, just like there is when any practitioner – whether in sport, music or any artform – turns their hand to writing.
In my experience jazz writers and executives tend to be players too, and that’s a good thing.
As a professional musician, what’s the #1 thing you wish you’d learnt sooner, that many others are not aware of?
Get a mate to help you cart your drums around. If you have to pay someone, so be it!
Who were your early influences in jazz and how have they shaped your career?
I was lucky to have a jazz-loving dad, apparently like quite a lot of jazzheads I’ve spoken to. He was into everything from Louis to David Sanborn so I heard all of that around the house, but, being a fan of early ‘80s pop as well and a burgeoning drummer to boot, I guess my ear was most naturally drawn to the jazz/rock side of things.
Weather Report’s Heavy Weather, Joni Mitchell’s Wild Things Run Fast, Sanborn’s Voyeur, Miles’s Star People, Wayne Shorter’s Atlantis, Billy Cobham’s Warning, Steely Dan’s Aja and Level 42’s A Physical Presence were early totems.
I followed quite a normal path after that by investigating all the tributaries of jazz, and of course this was before the internet… You’d peruse the personnel on the back of album covers, read interviews in magazines and start forming links. I also played in some youth big bands with a lot of great players like trumpeter Ian Hamer and saxophonist Julian Arguelles so their enthusiasm and knowledge would rub off on you. I’d learn a lot from my dad too and have interesting debates with him.
I was always very aware from an early age that jazz inspired great devotion, but also that it was very tribal and that ‘selling out’ was seen by some as a heinous crime… Never particularly bothered me though. As far I was concerned there were people who ‘sold out’ really well and people who didn’t. I’ve carried that ethos right through my playing/writing career, though of course love Parker’s ‘Relaxin’ At Camarillo’ as much as anyone.
Your new book focuses on the life and career of John McLaughlin. What compelled you to focus on him, and how did the project come about?
John was another early hero. I’d seen Ry Cooder and Miles at Hammersmith Odeon in the early ‘80s, but then my dad took me to see the reformed Mahavishnu Orchestra there in July 1984. I was so gutted when Billy Cobham didn’t show on drums (a controversial ‘sacking’, investigated more in my book) but it was a brilliant gig. I was pretty much all-in from then on.
I’ve seen John live about ten times since then and it’s always different. His playing goes beyond the notes. He’s the only British musician I know who has the otherworldly aura of people like Miles and Wayne Shorter. And as a composer I’d also put him right up there with anyone since 1970.
Until around the early 2000s, I was buying every album as soon as it came out. There have been other books on John – notably by Paul Stump, Colin Harper and Walter Kolosky – but I wanted to focus more on his music since the 1980s, right up to the Covid era. There’s a whole heap of underrated work there and I feel it’s pretty criminal that John has been so unrecognised in his home country when he’s lauded in Europe and the States as one of the greats. I mean, has he ever even appeared on ‘Later…With Jools’? Unlikely, but there’s no reason why he shouldn’t…
The book is a celebration and, I hope, will take people back to the music with fresh ears. And of course he’s a deeply spiritual person and I’m not sure anyone’s ever quite nailed that aspect. Hopefully I have.
For someone new to McLaughlin’s output, what 4 albums would chart his journey from the 1980s to today?
I’d start with The Mediterranean Concerto. Then The Promise, then The Heart Of Things: Live In Paris and then Is That So?.
Were there any unique challenges or unexpected surprises that emerged while researching and writing about McLaughlin’s career?
Challenges? Sheer volume of material. John’s been recording for 60 years. I struggled with some of his ‘pop’ work in the 1960s. He did too!
Surprises? How so many of John’s friends, acquaintances and collaborators went out of their way to help with the book. Dennis Chambers, Danny Gottlieb, Stu Goldberg, Dennis Mackay and Peter Erskine gave photos and great information, Robert Fripp waxed lyrical about John, Steve Khan gave great insights about touring with him in the 1980s.
Creativity and talent aside, is there anything else that can be attributed to McLaughlin’s enormous and long-running success in the music industry?
Diversity and elusiveness. He’s a moving target. He’s mastered so many genres. For the first 30 years of his solo career, he barely stood still. You never really knew what you were going to get apart from stellar guitar playing and interesting compositions.
The key thing though, of course, is that live music is his bread and butter. He wants ‘blood on the stage’. He got that from Coltrane and Elvin Jones. The best albums have that passion too.
What does the day-to-day work entail as a Jazz Catalogue Manager at a major label?
My boss told me on the first day at Universal: ‘If you are working every single day to maximise the selling potential of our brilliant heritage jazz acts, you’re doing a good job.’
A major label these days means a global company, so you’re explaining to marketing teams and managers across the world why they should be focusing on a particular catalogue item. You’re checking daily with the supply chain that production standards are suitable. You’re making sure the pricing is fair and hosting global calls on forthcoming projects. You’re the first point of contact for international jazz catalogue issues and priorities. You’re also the eyes and ears of catalogue streaming, checking/creating playlists and compilation albums.
What can today’s jazz musicians learn from how the classics are still promoted, sold and enjoyed today?
Very good and difficult question. Jazz seems forever stuck in the ‘conservatism vs. innovation’ debate, which doesn’t seem to infest classical or rock music as much.
I’d say to young jazz players that there’s no substitute for investigating all of the classic artists, exploring their melodic/harmonic thumbprints. It’s interesting that jazz musicians of old generally learnt by ear and by listening to other players rather than by attending music schools, and you could argue that there should be more of that going on these days.
But at the same time there’s no real substitute for technical excellence, even if you then decide to jettison it. Listen to Wayne Shorter playing with the VSOP Quartet – he plays the heads perfectly, but then his solos go to Mars!
How important do you think it is for today’s jazz musician to find a label to release their music with?
There’s no getting away from that the fact that if you’re lucky enough to get onto a major label, you’ll get way more exposure than if you just put your music onto Bandcamp and hope for the best, though that can be a brilliant forum too.
But there are so many variables and it’s very hard to sustain a long career on a major label if you’re a new artist. They generally want an ‘angle’/USP for each new release.
You won the inaugural Jazzwise Write Stuff award in 2003. What was the biggest takeaway from that which every aspiring music writer should know?
There’s no substitute for passionate enjoyment. If you’re not totally committed to the music, there’s not a lot of point in immersing yourself. That’s not to say you’re going to like everything, but you should know why you don’t like it and offer some pointers towards improvement. I remember the film critic Alexander Walker saying something like: the film critic’s job is to have seen more films than you!
Listen to all kinds of music. Pop, blues, rock, R’n’B and classical also inform jazz music/criticism. So does cinema and theatre. Talk to other writers and remember that jazz is a social music. Also I was lucky to have the excellent Kevin Le Gendre leading my Write Stuff course and his core jazz-writing principles have stayed with me.
Your personal review site – Sounds of Surprise – is named after the book by New York critic Whitney Balliett, which covered the late 50s period in jazz. What do you think he would have made of today’s jazz scene?
Well, he wasn’t known for pulling punches, nor did he particularly dig some of the more progressive schools of jazz, so I’m not sure he would have been too enamoured! His writing is still fascinating though.
Lastly, what’s on your personal playlist right now?
I’ve got two massive Spotify playlists on the go. One features jazz that I’m recently discovering, old and new stuff, so I just dump in the odd track that I like, especially if I’m not going to buy the whole album. Recent additions: Don Pullen, Horace Silver, Mose Allison, Milford Graves, Morgan Guerin, Edward Simon, Yusef Lateef, Mary Lou Williams…
The other gathers all the old music I used to have on compilation cassettes I made in the 1980s and 1990s. Unalloyed nostalgia I suppose. What have I added recently? Let’s see… Johnny Gill, Lush, Brenda Russell, Angela Bofill, Roddy Frame, Eberhard Weber, Stevie Salas, Julian Joseph, Mick Karn, Mark Stewart…
Big thanks again to Matt for taking part!
Hi new book ‘John McLaughlin: From Miles & Mahavishnu to The 4th Dimension’ – is out now, and you can find out more about it here.
Looking for more? Check out his full bio and writing via his jazz-focused site soundsofsurprise.com