Born in 1934 in San Francisco, California, Phillips started playing bass in his youth and studied privately for a period with S. Charles Siani, Assistant Principal Bassist with the San Francisco Symphony. Interested in both avant-garde classical music and jazz, he moved to New York City in 1960. A formative period for the bassist, he gained valuable experience playing with a handful of maverick artists including trumpeter Don Ellis and conductor Leonard Bernstein. 1965 was a banner year for Phillips, as he made his recorded debut playing with Archie Shepp's ensemble on the live set New Thing at Newport, and with keyboardist Bob James on 1965's Explosions. He also performed and recorded with vibraphonist Bobby Hutcherson, German guitarist Attila Zoller, and free jazz acolyte Marion Brown.
In 1967, Phillips traveled to London where he formed the influential outfit the Trio with saxophonist John Surman and drummer Stu Martin. The group performed numerous concerts, fitting nicely into the burgeoning British improvisational scene alongside contemporaries like Derek Bailey, Evan Parker, and Trevor Watts, among others. Around the same time, he was invited to record some music with composer Max Schubel, who had started working in London at Columbia's electro-acoustic studios making taped music. This led to the release of Phillips' influential 1968 solo bass album Journal Violone. Recorded in a church, the album is largely regarded as one of the first major solo bass albums of improvised music.
More solo bass opportunities followed for Phillips, and over the next few years he continued to build upon this idea, even pairing with bassist Dave Holland for the equally groundbreaking 1971 duet album Music from Two Basses on ECM. Also in the early '70s, he relocated to a rural section of southern France, setting up permanent residence in an old chateau. More albums followed for ECM, including 1971's For All It Is, featuring Palle Danielsson, Jean-François Jenny-Clark, Stu Martin, and Barry Guy. The similarly expansive Mountainscapes arrived in 1976, and featured contributions by saxophonist Surman and drummer Martin, as well as synth player Dieter Feichtner and guitarist John Abercrombie. In 1979, he returned to his solo bass format (a recurring source of interest throughout his career) with Journal Violone II.
During the '80s, he stayed active, issuing more albums on ECM including 1981's quintet date Music By... and 1984's solo bass album Call Me When You Get There. He also joined German instrumentalist Alfred Harth, Paul Bley, Trilok Gurtu, and Maggie Nicols on 1983's This Earth! He then rounded out the decade with another solo bass album, 1989's Camouflage, recorded live at Vancouver's Western Front. Along with his own albums like 1990's Naxos and 1996's Etchings in the Air, Phillips continued his relationship with Barry Guy, recording with the London Jazz Composers' Orchestra. He also joined Ornette Coleman on the soundtrack to director David Cronenberg's 1991 adaptation of William S. Burroughs' Naked Lunch. He then paired with bassist Yoshizawa Motoharu for 1997's Uzu, and collaborated with fellow bass virtuoso Bertram Turetzky and multi-instrumentalist Vinny Golia on 1999's Trignition.
In 2001, he again paired with Paul Bley and Evan Parker for Sankt Gerold on ECM. A further album of improvised solo performances, Journal Violone 9, arrived in 2001. Phillips then joined bassists Tetsu Saitoh, Joëlle Léandre, and William Parker for a live set at the Victoriaville FIMAV 2003 festival, issued in 2004 as After You've Gone. That same year, he appeared on the ECM trio session Angles of Repose with father-and-son duo reedman Joe Maneri and viola player Mat Maneri. There were further sets, including 2006's The Iron Stone with Scottish multi-instrumentalist Robin Williamson, 2009's While You Were Out with Catherine Jauniaux and Ned Rothenberg, and 2011's quartet date Everybody Else But Me with Tony Bevan, Matthew Bourne, and Tony Buck. In 2018, Phillips issued End to End on ECM, an album he purportedly intended as his final solo bass album and the last in his Journal Violone series. The following year, he teamed up with Swiss saxophonist Urs Leimgruber and pianist Jacques Demierre for the trio album Willisau. ~ Matt Collar, Rovi
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