When Devin Phillips and his New Orleans Straight Ahead ensemble arrives in the Hawaiian Islands this month, he’ll be a long way from his home in New Orleans. But that’s how it is for the talented transplant born in the birthplace of jazz.
Good things have happened for Phillips since he arrived in Portland, Ore., two and a half years ago after Hurricane Katrina devastated his native New Orleans in 2005.
Phillips’ jazz quartet, New Orleans Straight Ahead, has become a fixture at local festivals, live-music venues and high-profile private events.
“I like it here in Portland,” said the 26-year-old saxophonist, who also leads a five-piece funk band that plays the local Portland scene. “I’m not going anywhere. I just got a futon. That’s a lot of commitment.”
On Sunday, as part of a statewide tour, Kaua‘i Concert Association presents Phillips and his ensemble at Kaua‘i Community College Performing Arts Center. Phillips, with pianist Andrew Oliver, bassist Eric Gruber and drummer Randy Rollofson form the dynamic quartet that will travel on this first-ever Hawaiian Islands tour. Local musicians JazzBug will open the show. The following day Phillips will provide an educational service concert at KCC for four Kaua‘i schools. Part of the concert association’s mission is to provide educational opportunities for children and the general public.
Phillips, who grew up surrounded by jazz, joined the ranks of Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong and Dizzy Gillespie as those who have represented America in a long-standing program of cultural diplomacy. Last year NOSA was one of six groups to secure a spot in the U.S. State Department’s “Rhythm Road: American Music Abroad” program.
Phillips considered it his greatest honor.
“This music is good and we’re trying to expose people to something truly decent from America,” he said. “So if the music can speak for our country, and we can have cultural exchange, not over oil but over music, that’s the most patriotic feeling I’ll have in my life.”
On the bandstand they’re full of excitement and drama. Phillips blows feathery melody lines on tenor saxophone while the rhythm section swings along evenly until the agile players leap into a montuno vamp … it’s obvious these young lions are listening as well as blowing.
Devin comes to the islands to perform at UH Hilo tonight, followed by the Manoa Jazz Festival on O‘ahu tomorrow, with the grand finale being on Kaua‘i Sunday to headline the premiere performance for KCA.
Working with the schools is not new territory for Phillips. Every week, he and NOSA work with young musicians at Fernwood Middle School in Northeast Portland as part of the “Schools Uniting Neighborhoods” program. The Multnomah County/Portland Public Schools collaboration brings artists into 50 local schools, according to SUN administrator Lindsay King.
“What Devin does truly well is take music that a lot of people perceive as complex and show you can simplify it and make it work,” King says. “He’s taken the fear out of that for these kids.”
KCA’s initial outreach event Monday kicks off the season. KCA will sponsor seven education services events for public and private schools around the island throughout the concert season.
Come join Devin Phillps and opening artist JazzBug to celebrate the KCA season opener Jazz, New Orleans Style. Tickets can be purchased at: Dr. Dings Hanapepe; Kalaheo Cafe and Coffee; Kaua‘i Music and Sound, Kapa‘a; Borders Books and Music, Lihu‘e; Kukui Grove Management Office, Lihu‘e; Island Soap and Candle, Kilauea; Magic Dragon, Princeville and Aloha N Paradise, Waimea. For more information visit Kauai-concert.org or call 245-7464.
Want to go?
What: Jazz Straight Ahead, New Orleans style with opening artists, JazzBug
When: 7 p.m. Sunday
Where: KCC Performing Arts Center
Cost: $35 general; $10 students
• Eric Bartels is a freelance writer residing in Oregon.
• Ron Margolis is a musician and marketing director for Kaua‘i Concert Association.