Saxophonist who played for Prince and got noticed by Michael Jackson now honors the King of Pop in Cirque’s ‘Immortal World Tour’
Saxophonist Mike Phillips was big-game-tested when he was recruited for Cirque du Soleil’s “Michael Jackson: The Immortal World Tour.” After gigs playing the national anthem on opening day for the Kansas City Royals and halftime shows at the Super Bowl with Prince and Stevie Wonder, there’s little that can phase you, even playing from a high vantage point that oversees the action of a Cirque show.
“With pyro, lights, the energy from everywhere and a lot of things on the outskirts that assist the music and the presentation, let’s put it this way, and I know it sounds crazy, but playing four Super Bowl halftime shows with all of that gets you ready for Cirque,” Mr. Phillips said.
Where: Petersen Events Center, Oakland.
When: 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 4 p.m. Sunday.
Tickets: $50-$175 (not including fees for online purchases) at ticketmaster.com or 1-800-745-3000.
Not so crazy. Cirque’s “Immortal Tour” is more like a halftime marathon that is now in its sixth month. It includes 32 songs played live to recordings of Michael Jackson’s voice, his finger snaps and foot taps, while the band rocks out from its position above the acrobats, dancers and pageantry. The show’s sensory assault comes courtesy of writer and director Jamie King, a designer of tours for entertainers such as Rihanna and Madonna, including the latter’s 2012 Super Bowl halftime show.
“Immortal” features more than 60 performers from around the world and enough props and equipment to roll into the Petersen Events Center aboard 35 trucks.
It all starts with the music of the late Michael Jackson, with arrangements by his longtime collaborator and “Immortal” music director Greg Phillinganes.
“They extracted Michael’s masters and custom made and tailored the songs to specific acts … Cirque is perfect for that,” Mr. Phillips said by phone before heading to Pittsburgh. “They have a way of putting together a presentation that will bring you through different moods. Once that happened and I was in rehearsal, I was absolutely amazed. To look at the greatest artist of all time, the King of Pop, and the greatest company that could put on a spectacle like this, I think it’s the perfect merger.”
The show includes a mere few who interacted with Jackson before his death at age 50 in 2009, including several members of the band: bass player Don Boyette, singer Fred White and drummer Jonathan “Sugarfoot” Moffett. Mr. Phillips met the King of Pop on a couple of occasions and performed a jazz saxophone solo on the single “Behind the Mask,” a song on the posthumous album “Michael,” released in December 2010.
“I met him once in Vegas when he came to the Prince show,” said Mr. Phillips, who played the Purple One’s Musicology tour in 2004. “You know, they always say that Michael and Prince were in competition, and I believe that, but it was a competition with a lot of respect of each other’s musical abilities. It was almost like, when you play HORSE in basketball, you see a shot and say, oh, I can make that, or I can do better than that. Even watching Mike and Prince interact that time in Vegas, the way they were looking at each other, they had so much respect.
“And I met Michael and he shook my hand and looked me straight in the eye and said, ‘I truly enjoyed you on saxophone. You’re bad.’ Those were his words verbatim. And I think that’s what led to him requesting me for ‘Behind the Mask.’ “
When Cirque came calling, though, Mr. Phillips wasn’t so sure. He had just finished recording “Behind the Mask” when he first heard the pitch from John McClain, co-executor of the Jackson estate.
“I’m out shooting hoops in the back of the studio on Sunset in LA, and he says, ‘We’re putting together a show for Michael, like a circus show.’ And I was like, I don’t want to play for that. I didn’t know it was Cirque du Soleil. Cirque du Soleil is the creme de la creme of entertainment. So just playing for the circus, I was like, I don’t know if I want to do that, brother. Once I found out it was Cirque du Soleil, I called him back and absolutely said yes, but still, I was concerned about how would it work.”
Now, from the perspective of six months on the road with the tour, he couldn’t be more enthusiastic.
Mr. Phillips often plays gigs at small venues to showcase his solo work, and members of his tour family come along to cheer him on, sometimes joining him to dance on stage.
And from the band space that Mr. Phillips says is the best seat in the house to watch the Cirque show, he can enjoy the work of the performers below — although it can be distracting.
“From where I stand, I see absolutely everything, which sometimes is not a good thing because there’s so much going on that you can get caught up in it and miss a part. I’m not gonna lie, that’s happened a couple of times. I’m like, wow, look at that move, and a part just passes.”
He said one of the showstoppers who has been known to cause him and the audience to perhaps skip a breath in amazement is the pole dancer. MTV.com wrote of the performance of Felix Cane, two-time world pole-dancing champion, that she “maneuvered in the sky dancing on a pole — with no harness — appropriately performing to ‘Dangerous,’ as the audience was captivated by her every move.”
“She’s responsible for most of my missed notes,” Mr. Phillips said, laughing. “And ‘Smooth Criminal.’ When they do the lean like the Michael Jackson video, I’m just amazed because they go all the way down to the floor and come back up. It’s just like, man … the only way I can describe it is it’s sonic and visual sensory overload.”
Mr. Phillips says often that the show is driven by Jackson’s voice, and the band has several important roles, notably cues that trigger the action for acrobats and dancers.
Consistency is important, but it doesn’t always go by rote. Each stop on the tour provides its own unique spark. The Philadelphia native likes to observe what makes an audience tick.
“Every town has a different energy, and our job is to understand it and tap into it,” he said. “Like Detroit, for instance, that’s the type of town where they work hard, like Pittsburgh, so if we buy a ticket, we want every bit of our money’s worth. In LA, everybody is looking around to see who else is there, looking fabulous. If you’re in New York and you’re not bringing it hard, they are looking at you like, whatever. And we’re in New York now, and they are on their feet. So each venue, each town has a different spirit to them you have to really understand.”
While on tour, Mr. Phillips also plies his trade and takes the pulse of cities in smaller venues like the Taboo 2 Bistro & Bar in Atlanta April 25 and the Sheraton Hotel Ballroom in Baltimore May 4. He’s played stadiums and arenas, including the Mellon Arena with Prince back in 2004.
As the Cirque tour stretches through the United States and Canada before heading to Europe in October, Mr. Phillips said the big show and his smaller shows provide a perfect career balance, even for someone who has played President Clinton’s Inaugural Gala at The Kennedy Center, the 80th birthday celebration for President Nelson Mandela in South Africa, the Billboard Music Awards, TV appearances and oh, yeah, those halftime gigs.
For now, he’s happy to be a part of this particular circus as long as it lasts, because it honors the man he calls “the greatest entertainer of all time.”
“One of my favorite quotes goes something like, ‘You might forget what someone said to you, sometimes you might forget what they do, but you’ll never forget how they made you feel.’ At the end of the night, that’s what this is all about. Making people feel Michael’s spirit through the presentation that only Cirque can put together.”