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December 2017 - Phill Denny

Lansing Sax Man Takes Smooth Grooves Worldwide

Story by LCC Radio Reporter Sarah Spohn

Many sixth graders take up an instrument in middle school, but not all travel the world playing the same instrument decades later. Lansing native Phil Denny started playing saxophone at Gardner Middle School, and quickly fell in love with tower of Phil Dennypower sax man Richard Elliot. Today, it’s a fondness that remains – listening to the likes of contemporary, R & B style players like Grover Washington Jr., Kirk Whalum, Boney James, John Klemer, Art Porter, and Najee.

Fast-forward to 2010, and Denny shifted his focus to playing music full-time. The next year was spent immersing himself into the business – writing, recording, networking and attending festivals. In 2012, his debut solo CD “Crossover” was released in August.

While some people might turn their heads at the ‘smooth jazz’ genre, Denny assures his music is entertaining and engaging. “Phil Denny music is truly instrumental R & B and pop music with improvisation,” he said. “It can be smooth, up-tempo, energetic, sultry, funky or passionate. It’s labeled smooth jazz for marketing and for radio. True fans of this music are also lovers of old school, R & B and Motown.”

He has taken the stage at the Dubai International Jazz Festival, Headlining Jazz Under the Stars in Nairobi, Kenya, and the Hyatt Regency Newport Beach Jazz Festival. Michigan has a special place in his heart though, and he owes much to his friends and fans in the Capital city.

“It’s home,” Denny said. “Many of the people that have supported me over the years have grown with me and my artistry. I’ve become friends with many and socially keep in touch as much as I can. Playing the Michigan music scene is special for that those reasons.”

Being on the road is a happy place for Denny to be, an adventure he’s gladly on. “Best part about the road is sharing your music,” he said, “the new experiences and the meeting of new fans. I love my fans! I’ve always said, ‘You never know where music make take you next’ … I consider each opportunity a fortunate experience to do what I love.”

Each year, Denny performs a special holiday concert, which has become tradition in the area for many families and concert-goers. “The Phil Denny & Friends Christmas Collective brings together an exciting artist roster of recording artists to collaborate on fresh, lively arrangements of holiday favorites and original music,” Denny said.

The collective came to life in 2012, after the jazz musician was inspired by the energy and response of performing live, and realized a need for more live music experiences.

The annual event has become an excellent way for the Lansing native to introduce his traveling artist friends to his hometown area.
Phil Denny
“The show has evolved to be a production which draws upwards of 500 attendees each year and has become a tradition for many. We continue to receive great support from local businesses and have since added a food drive with the Capital Area United Way with the help of our sponsor Michigan Plumbing. This year, WLNS news anchor Sheri Jones will emcee.”

Opening acts include Sam Trump of Chicago, and “friends” include Kayla Waters, JJ Sansaverino, L’Renee, youth artist Gabe Hammes, the Lansing School District All-City Choir (directed by Dennys former Everett High School Band director Joshua Hicks)and an entire troupe of Danceworks of Michigan dancers (directed by Bridgett Boucha): Sara Spanogle, Devin Carter, Alex Krueger, and Jennah Quinn. Denny’s bandmates include Demetrius Nabors, Gary Johnson, Robert Skinner, Jeff Canady, and Eddy Garcia.

The Olivet College Business Administration and Marketing graduate took lessons under private instruction at MSU. Denny is no stranger to LCC either, having been a member starting senior year of high school in the LCC Jazz Ensemble, and earning his Associate’s degree here as well. Marketing and business skills come in handy for this saxophonist, considering he also pulls double-duty as manager, label, concert promoter, booking agent, etc.

“I do it all,” Denny explained. “It’s a lot of work, though it’s very rewarding. You have to be well versed to survive and thrive in this business. Learning to balance being the musician and also being the ‘other’ roles can be challenging. It takes a lot of time and dedication.”

Any remaining time is spent on his small vintage jewelry collection with his wife, Amanda. The pieces are made from ‘un-refurbishable saxophones.’ Denny also owns and manages two rental properties on top of all that.

When it comes to songwriting, Denny describes himself as an “in the moment kind of songwriter.”

“I am typically drawn to a groove which stems my creative process. I have worked and still work with a variety of musicians. It keeps the influence broad,” he said.

One such fellow Michigan musician Denny has had the pleasure to play on stage next to is household name and Motown icon – Stevie Wonder.

“It happened on the night the he was inducted into the Michigan Walk of Fame,” Denny recalled. “My former band, Too Smooth for Notes, was playing at the former 621 club and he came in for a late night hang. After listening to the band play for a while, he was escorted to the stage. It was a packed house by that time as the word got around. I was all smiles! So much in the moment I forgot to get an autograph following,” Denny said.

The bucket-list moment was described as awesome, but Denny’s not done with pinch-me moments Phil Denny - Crossoveranytime soon. Up next on his list is his dream of performing with legendary sax man Boney James.

He’s on his way – the third release, “Upswing” spent 16 weeks on the Billboard chart, scoring a #13, a top ten on the Mediabase chart, and also reached #1 on Sirius XM Watercolors weekly.

“Worldwide sales have been great for this CD and helped to further develop my name in the industry,” he said. “I still manage myself and am considered an independent artist.”

As for now, the independent artist is also the producer of the monthly Gallery Suite Jazz Series at La Fille Gallery, creator of the first-ever Phil Denny's Armory Smooth Jazz Fete. He’s also working on new music, an album to be released summer 2018.

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