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. Continue reading “Phillip Johnston's Many Moods (And The Microscopic Septet, in Three Acts)”