“The scariest thing is nonexistence,” Reynold Philipsek says in the opening of the documentary A Life Well Played. To be sure, he’s talking about nonexistence in the form of many things, but music is clearly his focus—his 36th album came out in October.
The documentary, which showcases Philipsek, was created by filmmaker Rene Erickson (Airburst Entertainment production) and pulls in viewers with the music, starting almost softly and building into a house of sound. It premiered locally in June at the Schneider Theater in Bloomington.
In conversation with Philipsek, he’s clear about what he wants to convey. He explains that he entered music professionally at the age of 12 and joined the musicians union at 14. “I can’t remember a time when I wasn’t playing, and I knew I wanted to do this my whole life,” Philipsek says. “I was playing full-time in high school.” Shortly after, Philipsek took his guitar and hitchhiked and busked through Europe. With no credit card or cell phone, he made his way around getting odd jobs or playing for tips. “I met a lot of musicians that I still know today,” he says.
But it wasn’t until an early brush with mortality that Philipsek really started making the bulk of his discography. “I didn’t know if I was going to live another 35 years,” Philipsek says after he was diagnosed with testicular cancer in 1981. (He is now cancer free.) “I determined at that point I was going to try and do one album a year, and I have done that. I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep that up,” he says. “People go through life and are shocked when something happens,” Philipsek, 64, says. “When you face mortality at a young age, you don’t take anything for granted.”
Philipsek’s music, self-described as a combination of Gypsy and American jazz, takes nothing for granted either. It’s inventive, soft, loud and hungry all at the same time. With over 30 albums to his name, he’s created more music in 30 years than most would make in a lifetime. Developing new content “gets harder all the time,” for Philipsek. “Part of that is, when you’ve written a lot of songs, you inadvertently copy yourself,” he says. Within the creative process, Philipsek walks away from a lot of his music, too, and it takes developing four or five songs to find one keeper. “Either my standards have gone up or I’ve written too much,” he says.
Creating an album is a similar challenge for Philipsek. In the last couple of years, he’s worked on the compilation album for the documentary release. He writes around 15 songs and edits down the group to 10–12 songs. Philipsek understands the ebb and flow of critical reception. “I’ve been at it long enough that I have a core audience, so that whatever I do sells a certain amount,” he says. “Then you do something that deserves to be written about and it’s not.”
Playing live has always been the most lucrative part of Philipsek’s career, and it’s his favorite. “There’s freedom in jazz,” says Philipsek. He describes the musicians he plays with as a “tight-knit family of players.” The energy seems contagious. “What I love about playing with Reynold is how easy it is,” percussionist Michael Bissonnette says. “There’s a mental telepathy going on there that’s pretty darn great—a lot of listening and sensitivity to each other. We give each other space and challenge each other.” Gregg Inhofer, a pianist in the mix, echoes the ease. “It’s effortless because he plays in the moment with very little demand. Like a good employer, he empowers his employees,” he says.
Philipsek’s known the guys he plays with for decades, and he doesn’t write parts for them. “He gives me an idea of basic feeling. It’s more an emotional direction than musical direction,” Inhofer says. It’s equal parts improvisation and trust, but Philipsek knows exactly what he wants to accomplish.
Being the subject of the documentary might be his oddest job to date. “It’s surprising and a very humbling experience,” Philipsek says. “The satisfying part of it is you don’t normally stop and think about what you’ve accomplished.”
When discussing those eager to enter the industry, Philipsek becomes serious. “It’s harder and harder than it’s ever been, but if that’s what you really love, you have to find a way,” he says, regardless, “I would never dissuade anyone.”
His latest album is a welcome addition to his 234 song catalog. “I don’t have to play other people’s music, which has always been my goal,” says Philipsek. “His music has its own separate, unique identity,” Inhofer says. “I don’t come across it very often, so it’s exciting.”
When asked about his legacy, Philipsek’s honest. “I think about that a lot,” he says. “When you’re first starting to write music, you don’t. You develop a style and it takes time. You copy people and create your own thing. After a while, you have a repertoire, and you start to develop things based on that style and that’s your legacy.”
Based in Eden Prairie, Philipsek finds inspiration in his surroundings. “I run every day around [Staring Lake],” says Philipsek. “It’s a preserve, and there’s a lot of nature. I’ve gotten a lot of ideas about that.” And he looks forward to bringing more ideas to life. “I still feel like I’ve got a lot more to do,” he says.