Classical Music’s Latest Bloomer

A conversation with composer Joseph C. Phillips Jr. about his sublime marriage of jazz and classical music.

Photo courtesy of Carolyn Wolf

The 42-year-old, modern classical composer Joseph C. Phillips Jr. is a self-described “late-bloomer.” Now one of the brightest new lights on the modern classical scene, he studied music at the University of Maryland and began his career as an award-winning high school director near Seattle.

He honed his gifts as a composer while he was a member of the Seattle Young Composers Collective and began to make a name for himself after moving to New York City in 2000. Recognition quickly followed: He was a finalist in the BMI Foundation’s Charlie Parker’s Composers Competition in 2003, a 2007 Sundance Institute Composer’s Lab finalist and founder of the New York City-based composer’s federation, Pulse. 

In April, Innova Records released his sophomore release, Vipassana, on which his 25-piece ensemble, Numinous, displays his knack for melding the worlds of jazz and classical into a singular, distinguishable voice. His music captures the wonder and immediacy of the late science-fiction writer Octavia E. Butler’s prose. A hypnotic rhythmic undertow guides his music and is informed by influences from the world of literature, philosophy and religion.

The Root talked with Phillips the day after he premiered The Gates of Wonder at his alma mater. Not only did he talk extensively about the makings of his music, but also about modern classical music’s relationship to other music, such as jazz and hip-hop, and about his experiences as a new composer in a genre in which racial barriers for many African Americans are often prevalent but quietly ignored. 

The Root: Let’s talk about your new disc, Vipassana. I noticed that there were passages that were obviously borrowed from jazz. Does your music call for improvisation or were even those parts thoroughly composed?

Joseph C. Phillips Jr.: All of my pieces have improvisation within them. There are certainly sections where there are solos. There are times within the ensemble that the musicians are doing aleatory music, where artists are playing whatever. Hopefully I blend the jazz and classical worlds together so that you’re not conscientious of it all the time.