By Ken Waxman
Dance musicor more accurately music for danceis part of the answer to the question of what one pioneering New York downtowner, saxophonist Phillip Johnston, is up to these days.
While it's helpful to have Johnston's work preserved, and the seventeen tracks on Rub Me the Wrong Way are well-played and voiced so that the various four-piece ensembles express the textures usually found from an orchestra, these still are sounds meant to accompany dancers. It would seem that the jazz content is minimal.
Long-time Johnston followers may be most interested in the final four tracks, "The Further Adventures of Slap and Tickle." Recorded in '98the other pieces date from 2003these four feature one of the final performances of his Transparent Quartet, featuring the composer on tenor saxophone, Joe Ruddick on piano, Dave Hofstra on bass, and Mark Josefsberg on vibraphone. Encompassing a couple of finger-snappers and a slinky tango, the ensemble sounds like a hipper version of one of pianist George Shearing's groups. The saxophonist does get to showcase a breathy Ben Webster-like tone, the bassist to drive the tunes forward with low-register double stops, and the pianist to show a versatility that has him showcasing near-ragtime, then quasi-baroque strains on subsequent tracks. Despite some blues references throughout, the sum total of the tunes is much closer to flowery pop jazz than anything else.
Featuring Johnston on soprano saxophone and a shifting personnel, the other suites are even more diffident. Divided into eleven parts, "Minor Repairs Necessary" ranges from some of the most memorable to some of the least impressive themesjazz-wise at least. That stigma is reserved for "Birds," which is no more than a tinkling solo intermezzo for pianist Tilles.
Much more impressive is "Whodunit," featuring Johnston, Josefsberg, pianist Jonathan Dryden, and bassist Lindsey Horner. Cartoon-like, with echoes of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington's Jungle band, it features a whizzing soprano sax line, faux-primitive piano licks, ringing vibe resonationthat plays call-and-response with the saxand a healthy bass line holding it together. Also interesting are "Cliffs" and "Knight." Driven by a rickety-tic sax and pumping piano, the first is a tango mixed with Klezmer references and quotes from "Anchors Away," "Auld Lange Song," and "Over There." The later finds the saxophone and piano in perfect counterpoint, moving from adagio to allegro with high frequency dynamics.
Unfortunately, between the ringing, slinky vibes tones, legato and unaccented reed work, and a backbeat from almost parlor-style piano, the bassist can hardly be heard. Considering Horner provided the rhythmic pulse for pianist Myra Melford's original trio and reedist Michael Moore's Jewels and Binoculars project, that's a major oversight.
Useful mostly as a reminder that there is composerly life beyond downtown New York, Rub Me the Wrong Way rarely rises above its designated use as dance accompaniment.
Track Listing: Whodunit; Jitter Duel; Crash; Mermaids; Float; Cliffs; Knight; Family; Birds; Comfort;
Nightmare; Rub Me the Wrong Way; Slap; Ta Da; Tango; Windmill; Tickle.
Personnel: Phillip Johnston: soprano, tenor sax; Mark Josefsberg: vibes; Joe Ruddick, Jonathan Dryden,
Nurit Tilles: piano; Will Holshouser: accordion; Lindsey Horner, David Hofstra: bass;
Barbara Merjan: drums.