Rocker Phil Collins Beats the Drum for Big-Band Music


It only took three songs from the Phil Collins Big Band at the Greek Theatre Monday night before the first plaintive call came from the crowd.

"Sing, Phil, sing!"

Followed by a grumbling response from another part of the audience.

"He ain't gonna sing, man. He's just gonna play drums."

Which was pretty much what happened at a concert in which the Genesis drummer and hit songwriter indulged his long-standing love of big-band music. Given the opportunity by Private Card Issue, a credit card company, to lead a big band--as well as to provide a painting, his first, for one of the company's credit cards--Collins decided to "share both my art and my love of big-band music."

The problem with drummers leading big bands, however, is that the drums generally dominate the sound. And when the drummer is a certified rock star, you can bet that the audio mix is going to place him front and center.

To his credit, Collins did his homework, learned the arrangements (of Genesis tunes and a few standards) in detail, and clearly seemed to understand that the drums are the engine that drives a big band. But there was too much detail and not enough art in his playing. Yes, he made all the deadlines in Sammy Nestico's charts, kicking the trumpets, adding accents to the bass, using brushes adroitly with the saxes.

But good big-band drumming, like good film composing, is most effective when it takes place seamlessly, offering support without intrusion. And that was not the case with Collins, who needs to integrate his technical skills into a more artful, less busy style.

Further complicating the evening was the fact that Collins' first-rate ensemble, featuring several of his core band members, with saxophonist Gerald Albright and players from the Northern Illinois University Jazz Band, could rarely be heard properly. There were times, in fact, when the 15 horns were so overbalanced by Collins and the rhythm section that Private Issue might as well have saved expenses and booked a pair of electronic keyboard players instead.

Collins did get around to singing a few standards (not exactly what the crowd had hoped for), conducted by Quincy Jones. Oleta Adams added a set of Sarah Vaughan-tinged vocals, and Albright dashed off some typically overheated soloing--sounding especially effective on "Against All Odds (Take a Look at Me Now)."

It was, at best, an erratic evening. But, on the up side, if Collins is serious about wanting to continue down the large-ensemble road, and if he continues to mature within the style, he just might give a needed boost to the now-simmering interest in the revival of big-band swing.

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