Simon Phillips – Protocol 4 (2017)

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Protocol 4 is hardly a return for Simon Phillips, since the producer, writer, engineer composer and drummer extraordinaire has not gone away. Though Protocol III was in 2014, Phillips has been working with the Hiromi trio – not to mention his time behind the boards on numerous projects.

Protocol 4 (Phantom Recordings via AMPED) features a couple of key developments, beginning with the debut of a reworked lineup. Long-time bassist Ernest Tibbs is joined by two new members, the multi-talented Greg Howe on guitar and jazz-funk master Dennis Hamm on keyboards. It’s another example of how Simon Phillips never rests on his laurels.

In another twist, all nine of these new songs were written by Phillips during a recent tour. Phillips points out that he found writing on the road refreshing, and also that it helped contribute to a harder musical edge found on Protocol 4.

“Nimbus” kicks things off in high gear. Howe is given room to stretch out over Phillips’ delicate high hat work and Tibbs’ propulsive bass playing. Touches of Fender Rhodes and synth washes add to the musical tableau. Hamm’s synth solos recall ’70s-era jazz rock, in all its glory. The song’s timing changes and solo section hold together expertly, yet never seem over thought.

“Passage to Agra” is as exotic and alluring as its name suggests. Hamm’s synthesizer sets the stage, quickly followed by Simon Phillip’s Octobans which then morph into an insane shuffle. That provides an overlay for Howe’s volume pedal-infused guitar before Hamm returns with a vintage synth sound to paint additional colors. At more than seven minutes, the song attempts to reach another level, but doesn’t quite get there.

“Phantom Voyage” makes better use of its time. The song’s initial metronomic intro is laden with a wash of synthesizers, which then give way to the delicate slow burn of Phillips’ drum and Tibbs supportive bass foundation. Howe’s guitar lead is bluesy and perfectly fits this setting. The results boast a Steely Dan-meets-Toto vibe, with a great use of space and economy – and Dennis Hamm’s acoustic piano solo only adds to it. “Phantom Voyage” is the definition of perfection and grace.

The album-closing “Azorez” turns the vibe way up and offers an excellent contrast to “Phantom Voyage.” Tibbs, Howe and Phillips share in a nasty time signature to kick things off, before Howe breaks loose and Phillips follows in rapid succession. Phillips’ drums and Howe’s guitar never step on each other, but instead do a delicate dance around the tight rhythm. It’s almost easy to overlook the groove Earnest Tibbs is laying down, or the fine combination of Fender Rhodes and synthesizer parts layered in by Dennis Hamm. Luckily, Simon Phillips’ recording is so pristine and clear that every party is expertly captured.

On one level, if you are a fan of Simon Phillips, Protocol 4 won’t be a surprise for you. The nine tracks are all adventurous and dynamic. Phillips again proves his meddle as a composer, producer and arranger. Still, the question which may come to mind is how Protocol 4 differs from Protocol 3.

The answer is two fold: Phillips continues to develop as a composer and arranger. Additionally, Greg Howe and Dennis Hamm bring a different and slightly funkier vibe to the album than their esteemed predecessors. That in itself makes this another Simon Phillips must have.


Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier

Preston Frazier is a bass-playing lawyer living in Atlanta. His first Steely Dan exposure was with an eight-track cassette of 'Pretzel Logic.' He can be reached at slangofages@icloud.com; follow him on Twitter: @slangofages. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.
Preston Frazier
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