Phillip Johnston's Many Moods (And The Microscopic Septet, in Three Acts)

photo by Andrew Cowen

Composer and saxophonist Phillip Johnston has been living in Sydney, Australia for the past decade. Yet his music still speaks of and to downtown Manhattan, of an attitude that had little use for convention and that grew out of a scene full of willing co-conspirators. This wide-ranging music was first heard some 30-odd years ago in now-defunct clubs, yet its sound and attitude endures.
Through the years, some critics have seemed to overlook Johnston’s obvious talent and his large and fascinating body of work—his unusual blend of early-jazz elements and late-breaking ideas; the casual, even grudging sense of humor that never hid the seriousness of his accomplishment; the ways in which he’d bond tightly with a single musician (like accordionist Guy Klusevcek) or lend coherence to a wild amalgam of players for large-scale pieces. It was as if Johnston might as well have been living in, well, Sydney.
Maybe now, as he arrives in New York City for an extended March run beginning tonight, Johnston can be celebrated as a returning hero. Or just an extremely talented and motivated guy with a soprano sax (he also plays alto, but the soprano horn is his signature), a bulging bag of original compositions, a loosely connected set of wild ideas, and enough ensembles to them all justice. A guy whose music never really left town.
The core of what might be an extended 60th birthday party for Johnston here in New York City is his weeklong residency at John Zorn’s club, The Stone, presenting twelve different musical offering over 6 nights, from March 3 through 8. These will include both new and old collaborations, ranging through solo soprano saxophone, a series of duos and trios, and some medium-sized ensembles. While Johnston is primarily known for carefully notated compositions, many of these evenings will feature improvisation, both free and structured. Some of these will be groups that have not performed together for quite a while, ranging from Phillip Johnston’s Idea, a band from the punk-funk days in New York in the 1980s that used to play at venues like CBGB and Tramps, to his duo with Guy Klucevsek.
An annotated schedule is here.
I first got to know Johnston through the group he co-led with pianist Joel Forrester, The Microscopic Septet—a wildly idiosyncratic, devastatingly accomplished ensemble that, from first stirrings in 1980 through dissolution in 1992, built a small, devoted following and a big catalog of brilliant tunes. (Yet the Micros seemed never really to die…)
One centerpiece of this March Phil-apalooza is a mini-festival of sorts focused on the possibilities within the Micros chemistry.
On March 5 10pm at The Stone, the Micros will play a set of free improvisations (and by that we mean that the cover charge applies, but the chord changes don’t)
On March 7 8pm at The Stone, the rhythm section stays home and the focus is squarely on the Micros’ four-sax engine (soprano, alto, tenor and baritone)—“a wide variety of saxophonic chamber-nality,” Johnston calls it.
On March 19 9:30pm at Smalls Jazz Club, the Micros do what they (and only they) usually do.
But wait! There’s more…
On March 13, Columbia University will host a performance of Wordless!, Johnston’s multi-media collaboration with Art Spiegelman.
Gear up for that on Wednesday, March 4 10PM at The Stone, when Johnston performs with the sextet he assembled for Wordless!
In attempt to share the “aroma” of all these happenings, he said, Johnston has been posting audio files. They are free, and many of them will be downloadable. Here are some I’ve received. (Annotations are Phillip’s):
Tues 8PM  @ The Stone
Phillip Johnston solo soprano saxophone,
and with pre-recorded other soprano saxophones
sample here
Tues 10PM @ The Stone
Phillip Johnston’s Idea
Phillip Johnston (soprano saxophone), Joe Gallant (6-string bass), Dave Hofstra (bass), Richard Dworkin, drums.
sample here
Bar Talk (live at the Berlin Jazz Festival 2003)
sample here
This is a live recording of a tune by Guy Klucevsek, performed at the Berlin Jazz Festival in 2003, featuring Guy Klucevsek, accordion and Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone. We didn’t record this tune on our W&W CD ‘Tales From The Cryptic’, because Guy had already recorded it on his excellent CD ‘Accordance’ with Alan Bern, but we will be performing it at our duo gig at The Stone at  8PM on Thursday Mar 5th.
Dizzy Dame (The Spokes)
sample here
This is the first track from the 2009 Strudelmedia CD ‘Not So Fast’ by The Spokes. The Spokes are: Andy Biskin (clarinet), Curt Hasselbring (trombone), and Phillip Johnston (soprano saxophone). The composition is by Phillip Johnston.
The Spokes will be performing at The Stone at 10PM on Friday Mar 6th.
Shelley’s Got A Brand New Handbag (Nobody’s Idea)
sample here
Please forgive the lo-res quality of this recording, but I think the context justifies it. It was recorded on a cassette tape recorder on Feb 11, 1984, at the Taller LatinAmericano by Mark Lutwak. The occasion was either a fundraiser for the resistance to US intervention in Nicaragua, or Mark’s wedding-I can’t recall which. The band was a jam band version of my band Phillip Johnston’s Idea, called Nobody’s Idea, co-lead by myself and Wayne Horvitz, and playing tunes by both of us and Joe Gallant. Here is the exact personnel: Wayne Horvitz – keyboards, Phillip Johnston – soprano, alto, baritone saxes, Dave Hofstra – bass, Joe Gallant – bass, Richard Dworkin – drums, plus guests: Dave Sewelson – baritone sax and Doug Weiselman – tenor sax. The Shelley referred to is, of course, the fabulous Shelley Hirsch, this tune being originally played by The Public Servants. Phillip Johnston’s Idea will perform at The Stone on  Tuesday Mar 3rd at 10PM.

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