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Following his musical instincts; Never a one-track talent, singer/drummer/composer Phil Collins has now moved from pop and jazz to big band


Stardom in pop music, as elsewhere in the entertainment world, is to a certain extent all about image. Think of Bruce Springsteen, and you imagine a workingman's rock star, all honest sweat and no-frills integrity. Thnink of Eric Clapton, on the other hand, and what comes up is the noble suffering of a man who truly does have the right to sing the blues.

But what image appears when we think of Phil Collins? Is it the cheerfully entertaining showman who led Genesis through such hits as "Invisible Touch"? Or is it the heart-worn singer/songwriter who laid bare his suffering in "One More Night" and "In the Air Tonight"? Is Collins the savvy tunesmith whose score for Disney's animated feature "Tarzan" has been one of the summer's biggest pop hits? Or is he actually the jazz-fan drummer who seems so proud of his new big-band album, "A Hot Night in Paris"?

"People should know that nothing is Phil Collins!" he chortles over the phone from his home in Switzerland. "There is no Phil Collins," he continues, pumping his voice mock-portentously. "It is a many-headed beast, and will continue to be so."

He laughs, but deep down, Collins is dead serious. Where other pop stars are known for just one thing -- a certain band, a specific sound, an individual aesthetic -- Collins, 48, has made a point throughout his career of doing many things. He sings. He drums. He plays piano. He writes songs. He produces albums. He plays sessions.

"I'm constantly surprised that people are amazed that you do more than one thing," he says. "It seems to me to be [natural]. Playing for 25 years with just three other guys -- that, to me, is a bit weird."

Collins' career bears this out. Back in the '70s, when he was chiefly known as the singing drummer who stepped up to the mike when Peter Gabriel left Genesis, Collins had quite a few irons in the fire. Whenever he had time free from Genesis, he drummed with the jazz-fusion band Brand X and did session work with avant-rockers Brian Eno and John Cale.

Things became busier still once he started making his own recordings in 1981. Not only did Collins maintain dual careers as both a solo artist and a member of Genesis, but he produced albums for Eric Clapton ("Behind the Sun"), former Earth, Wind & Fire singer Phillip Bailey ("Chinese Wall") and others. He even found time for a film career, starring in the English bank-robber comedy "Buster."

Yet for all his many efforts, there were still things Collins hankered to do. Like play in a big band.

It seems odd that a man who has drummed with some of the biggest names in English rock -- who, at Live Aid, filled in for John Bonham during Led Zeppelin's reunion set -- would secretly harbor fantasies of playing like Sonny Payne in the Count Basie Orchestra. But Collins has been a closet big-band fan since the '60s, when he stumbled onto the 1966 Buddy Rich album "Swingin' New Big Band."

"Blew me away completely," he says of the recording. "Never heard anything like it. Still sounds fresh today, in fact."

How did he end up listening to Rich in the first place? "We drummers tend to listen to anything and everything," he answers. "As opposed to some keyboard players or guitar players, maybe, who get a bit more specific in their areas of music. Drummers spread their net pretty wide.

"I heard ['Swingin' New Big Band'] at the same time I was listening to the Beatles and Motown and Stax and all that stuff," he adds. "So I went out and bought all the Buddy Rich albums, big-band stuff I could find. And then I discovered Count Basie, and [drummers] Sonny Payne and Harold Jones, and people like this. I suddenly realized that there was some happening stuff here."

He wasn't the only one. Bill Bruford, who at the time was playing drums for Yes, was also a big-band fan -- "It may have been Bill that played me the Buddy Rich album," Collins muses -- and incorporated some of those ideas into his own music. "The early Yes arrangements were very influenced by big bands," says Collins. "You know, they did 'Something's Coming' from 'West Side Story,' and 'America' by Paul Simon, but in much more interesting arrangements."

For his own part, Collins feels that there are moments on old Genesis albums -- particularly "Get 'Em out by Friday" from the album "Foxtrot," and "The Fountain of Salmacis" from "Nursery Cryme" -- that found him drumming as if part of a big band. "If you imagine a horn section instead of the organ, actually, it kind of fits," he says.

Even so, it was years before Collins felt confident enough to attempt playing in a real big band. "There was so much work that I had to do," he says. "I had to learn how to play with brushes. I had to learn much more dynamic control. I had to remember these incredibly complex arrangements.

"It was a challenge, but I rise to those kind of challenges."

He first rose to the occasion in 1996, when he was invited to put together an evening of music for the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland. Enlisting the aid of producer and arranger (and former big-band leader) Quincy Jones, Collins augmented his normal 10-piece band with a full set of trumpets, trombones and saxophones, and began to assemble a "band book" of arrangements.

From the material on "A Hot Night in Paris," that may not seem to have been a challenge, as most of the titles would be familiar to Collins fans: "Sussudio," "That's All," "Invisible Touch," "Against All Odds."

But the sound of the arrangements is something else again. "Invisible Touch," for instance, sounds less like the Genesis hit than some half-forgotten Count Basie number, from the jaunty piano solo at the beginning to the explosion of brass that introduces the main theme.

"Well, it was arranged by Sammy Nestico, who arranged for Count Basie," says Collins, laughing. "That's an easy one."

Collins explains that the idea for the arrangement developed out of a running gag during one of his solo tours. "I would do this lounge lizard [character] when I introduced the band," he says. "And for a joke one night, the band started to play this lounge version of 'Invisible Touch.' So when it came to choosing the tunes, five years later, for the big-band album, that was one of the tunes that we wrote down on our list. And [trumpeter] Harry Kim said, 'Well, you know, Sammy Nestico is still writing, and he did some of this Basie stuff. Why don't we send it to him?'"

After that Montreux performance, Collins reassembled his big band for an American and European tour in '98 (when the current album was recorded), and hopes to make a regular thing of the big-band swing.

"I love the big band," he says. "I want to take the big band out next year, or every two years, at least, until I die. It's part of my body of work now, the big-band thing. It's something I really enjoy, and I'm doing it for me, really."

Trouble is, there are many things he enjoys, and only so many days in the year. At the moment, Collins is "on holiday," taking a two-month honeymoon with his new bride, Orianne Cevey (the two were wed July 23 in Switzerland). Then, in October, "Tarzan" opens in Europe, and Collins must again don his soundtrack-composer hat. And should he begin work on a new pop album, he'd likely be tied up for a year and a half touring behind that.

Having so many possibilities stretched before him makes Collins a bit cautious with his enthusiasms. "If I say that the big band interests me more, it means that when I go out with my pop thing, people will think I'm not going to be interested in it," he says. But he does like the pop thing. What he doesn't like is the amount of time the pop thing eats up.

"I've got to have the will, and the enthusiasm and excitement, to sit down and actually come up with all of these [new pop] songs," he says. "And I've got the bones of a couple already, which are new things, which actually I am quite excited about. So there's every possibility that the fire is still burning.

"But what happens is, then you make the record, and then to promote that, you go on tour. So you light this bomb that will eventually go off in your life, of being away for a year and a half.

"If you could just make the records, it'd be great."

Still, Collins knows his own nature, and understands that no matter how much he may chafe at the thought of 18 months of touring, he'll love every second spent onstage. "No matter what you feel like, as soon as that downbeat starts, really, you are doing what is part of your makeup," he says. "You are playing music to people. And that is what we do.

"The rest of it is packing and unpacking, packing and unpacking, waiting for a plane, waiting for a car, packing and unpacking. That side of it is the unattractive side of it. But five-star hotels, limousines -- you can't complain about it. What would you rather do with your life?"

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