Pianist-composer Phil Orr improvises a life in music aimed at growing the art, the artists, and the audiences
Orr is a keyboardist (primarly piano) within a spectrum of idioms ̶ multi-era jazz, pop (Anglo- and Afro-root), musical theater and classical. He has extensive live performance and recording experience as both soloist and collaborator/accompanist. He has recorded on piano, synthesizer, mellophone, flugelhorn, recorders and ‘puccolo’ (mouth whistling), and incidentally as a baritone chorister, featuring on 11 album-length releases (jazz, pop, soundtrack; 1973-present), with original compositions and arrangements represented on twelve.
Orr is a composer of neo-tonal classical, jazz (contemporary and historic) and pop (Anglo- and Afro-rooted) music: concert works, liturgical works, dramatic underscoring, incidental music, hymn tunes and jazz heads; 2- to 20-minute works for choir(s), solo voice, wind ensemble, concert band, chamber groups, solo keyboard. He is the recipient of several ASCAPlus awards and a NJ State Council on the Arts fellowship.
Learn more in Slow Facts
© Philip Orr
Pianist/composer/arranger/conductor/educator Philip Orr is all about music, for himself and for others. Guided by a precocious ear through his father’s vast record collection, his mother’s classical piano playing, and the musical variety found on broadcast television of the 1950s–60s, Orr was already an adept whistler and boy soprano at 7 when he began adding weekly studies year-by-year at the Neighborhood Music School in New Haven: piano (William Duffy); oboe (Salvatore Amato); Orff & theory classes; Baroque Orchestra (Grace Feldman); and Classical Orchestra (Michael Mennone). From junior high through high school he sequentially taught himself bassoon, SiSATB recorders, SATB saxophones, and double bass, performing in all the school’s ensembles. Fairfield, CT music educators Wayne Hiller, Frank Furman, and Ken Dunbar provided quantities of useful guidance and generous leeway for experimentation, from instrumental doubling, to excerpt hearings, to conducting opportunities. Extracurricularly, Orr studied cornet and trumpet with Dick Fortino, studied jazz piano & theory with John Mehegan, led his own rehearsal big-band, performed in college and community theater pits, and contributed charts, piano, trumpet and mellophone work to the University of Bridgeport Jazz Ensemble under Neil Slater.
Tours of the US, Canada & the Bahamas followed high school immediately, as accompanist and occasional arranger with Gene Hull, Vic Damone, Diane Scanlon, Billy Fellows, and Sandler & Young. A year of composition at Manhattan School of Music (Giampaolo Bracali) and gigs with John Stowell, Bill Bickford, Adam Nussbaum, Linc Chamberland, Art Davis and many other NYC-area jazz players filled in around tours.
In 1978 Orr began turning his attention to music in churches, serving as keyboardist, choral director, and resident composer for urban and suburban churches in southern Connecticut and New York while maintaining a local freelance career as keyboardist, brass player and arranger/copyist.
In 1993 he matriculated at Westminster Choir College of Rider University in Princeton, NJ, graduating 1996, summa cum laude with a BM in Sacred Music/Organ (recipient of the Andrew J. Rider Scholar Award; Charlotte W. Newcombe Foundation Church Music Scholarship; Alma Ziegler Thorne Organ Award; Hoke Composition Award; Presser Foundation Scholarship) and 1998, with distinction with a MM in Composition (recipient of the George Lynn Memorial Scholarship; Franklin Cannon Musicianship Award; Hoke Composition Award). Orr was a founding member of the Westminster Jubilee Singers, and accompanied on piano and organ the Westminster Singers under founding director Allen Crowell. As a bass chorister in the Westminster Symphonic Choir he performed and recorded works of Bach, Beethoven, Bernstein, Brahms, Britten, Dvorak, Hindemith, Honegger, Mendelssohn, Stravinsky, and Vaughan Williams at the major concert halls of New York, Philadelphia and New Jersey under maestri Sawallisch, Masur, Macal, Rilling, Salonen, and Flummerfelt with their associated ensembles (Philadelphia Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, New Jersey Symphony, LA Philharmonic, Orchestra of St. Luke’s).
In the years since, Orr has navigated a variety of musical paths simultaneously. He has served on the faculties of Rider University and Westminster Choir College since 1998, teaching a range of courses—music appreciation, music history, musicianship, music theory, group piano—and conducting the Rider University Choir for the period 2008–2015. In 1998 he established Orrganized Sound, a music publishing company, to disseminate his catalog of choral, vocal, instrumental, and jazz works. He has served as director of music at Calvary Baptist Church in Hopewell, NJ since 2002. He freelances regularly as a keyboardist in jazz, pop, musical theater and cabaret settings, with occasional forays into classical recital repertoire with colleagues.
Phil has enjoyed lengthy collaborations with clarinetist/conductor Jerry Rife (Jazz Hymns & Spirituals, 2002-present; Cool Yule Jazz, 2003-2010), composer/reedman Steve Hiltner (Sustainable Jazz Ensemble, 2006-present), and iconic sculptor, J. Seward Johnson (Sing Along With Sculpture, 2013-present). He also works frequently with actor Jason Kravits in his one-man comedy improv cabaret, “Off the Top!” Since January 2018, Orr has been curating, hosting and periodically performing in the weekly series, Jazz On Broad, introducing well-known and worth-knowing performers to the Mercer County, NJ area and each other.
Orr has been a featured performer on eleven album-length recordings, and his compositions and arrangements have been featured on twelve. His choral works have received particular attention through performances by more than 150 church, academic and community choirs in the US, France and the Caribbean, initiating commissions and earning several ASCAPlus Awards and a NJ State Council on the Arts fellowship.
“I’ve been a chorister since childhood and a choral conductor since 1979. Consequently, I’ve experienced similar situations of churches, stages and recording sessions from both sides of the podium. Additionally, I’m a lover of language, and both read and (but rarely, minutely) write poetry. I think my choral writing reflects the sensibilities of these life-filling activities in its attention to sound in words, pitch, range, harmonies – all emanating from the souls of people briefly bound together.
“My late father’s meticulously cataloged collection of ~1,000 recordings covering the years 1750-present enjoyed multi-hour, house-filling airings on a daily basis. The voices of Pons, Callas, Caruso, Makeba, Sutherland, Sinatra, Belafonte, Fischer Dieskau, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Jo Stafford, Jussi Bjoerling, the Mills Brothers (a fraction, off the top of my head) all mixed uncritically in my ear from infancy. My first composition (age 8) was a single-period song setting of a tiny Emily Dickinson poem – things progressed from there.
“While I’ve studied voice, sung in choirs, and occasionally faced down an audience alone from the proscenium, singing is not my particular thing. Words, however, move me, as do lovely voices, and the right song in the right body seems sometimes to bring history to a momentary halt – I love that feeling. I often get it in the writing process, and I hope performers performing my music feel it, too.
“Non-specialist singers certainly feel it. As I’ve accompanied the weekly sing-alongs at the wonderful Grounds For Sculpture, I’ve been struck by ad hoc communities springing like desert flowers to life through the act of public singing—garden-variety voices from around the globe joined in spirit for moments together over well-known and well-loved songs. The world’s heart beats a little stronger then, I think.”
See also Fast Facts
© Philip Orr
Stay in the Loop
Updates and reminders are sent 1-2 times monthly