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Phillip Johnston: Back From Down Under


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Phillip Johnston is best known to many jazz fans as co-founder of Microscopic Septet, though the saxophonist and composer has led many groups of his own and co-led others, including Big Trouble, The Transparent Quartet, Fast 'n' Bulbous and The Spokes. In addition, Johnston has composed and performed numerous soundtracks for both silent and modern films. A long time New York City resident, he relocated with his family to Australia over a decade ago, though he has continued to occasionally return to the city to record and perform.

Early Years

All About Jazz: What was your first instrument?

Phillip Johnston: I started playing tenor, then switched to alto, then to soprano. In my New York days, I played baritone, tenor, alto and soprano, but once I started focusing on being a composer and less on odd jobs and horn sections in different bands, I pretty much focused on alto and soprano. On the two new CDs, I play alto and soprano about 50/50 on Diggin' Bones and soprano alone on The Adventures of Prince Achmed.

AAJ: Did you already have an interest in jazz when you started playing tenor saxophone?

PJ: I had an unorthodox beginning to my training as a musician. I studied piano as a child and then in high school I got interested in certain kinds of music influenced by Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton and also avant-garde jazz happening at the time, Chicago Underground Quartet and Anthony Braxton. A lot of the music I listened to featured saxophone. Because I knew how to read music from playing the piano, I went to a local music store and rented a tenor saxophone and started teaching myself. So I did not play in the high school orchestra, wish I had! I studied on my own and eventually took some lessons, but it was not until later when I had a more formal music training.

AAJ: That is fascinating, I imagine you invented some fingerings on your own.

PJ: Well, I was very fortunate that there were some great musicians who I learned a lot from by playing with them. I met Joel Forrester and John Zorn when I was very young and I learned a lot from them and other people, too. So a lot of my training was on the job. I had a bit of an unconventional technique at the beginning, but as I got older and started playing in more conventional situations, I had to master more conventional technique to fit in ensembles and play straight ahead jazz.

Joel Forrester & The Microscopic Septet

AAJ: I recall you met Joel Forrester while one of you was practicing.

PJ: Joel and I were both living on East Tenth Street in the East Village and I was in my apartment on the third or fourth floor, practicing "Well, You Needn't" by Thelonious Monk. Joel was a big Monk practitioner and fan, heard me playing it and just walked up the stairs. It was the early seventies and we left our doors unlocked, he just walked into my apartment and sat down. After he was there awhile, I assumed he was a friend of my roommate and I said he would be back soon. He replied that, "I just heard you playing a Monk tune and I came up." We started playing together the next morning because I was set to move to San Francisco later that day. When I came back to New York, we started playing together again and we've been doing so ever since. Oddly enough, we ended up recording "Well, You Needn't" on our duo record.

AAJ: Tell me about how the Microscopic Septet.

PJ: We did the Micros as much as we could, though as professional musicians we had other gigs. In the early 1990s, we stopped playing together as a band, Joel and I were the two main figureheads and composers, we had been doing the Micros for 12 years and decided to put it on the shelf. I was working more in multi-media doing film and Joel was playing in a more straight setting. In 2015, when Cuneiform decided to release our LPs on CD, we decided to get the band back together in order to promote the four History of the Micros CDs. We had such a good time playing together, we said "Let's keep doing this," and we have been ever since. Joel moved to France for about a year, he was playing there several times a year and he has got a whole thing going on over there in a French band that is terrific, he decided to live there for awhile to see what it felt like.


AAJ: I imagine that you have written a lot of music that has not been recorded.  

PJ: Well, Joel and I have a lot of stuff that has not been recorded. Joel has written over 1,000 tunes, maybe more. I have a tendency to write for specific projects than just in the abstract. I have a pile of stuff that I would love to record , the opera that I wrote with Richard Foreman, which played to great reviews in New York back in the nineties. My score for F. W. Murnau's Faust was never recorded and I have a lot of material from my various bands, including my current ones, that I would like to record. But the opportunities, you have to pick and choose, are few and far between these days, you have to do it little by little.

AAJ: That is a source of frustration for every composer.

PJ: That gives them something to discover after you are dead. They can say, "Hey, this guy was actually pretty good."

AAJ: Are their musicians who have influenced you as a composer or performer?

PJ: There are so many, certainly the musicians I have played with have influenced me in so many ways. I have mentioned Joel Forrester and John Zorn, Guy Klucevsek. Musicians from history, like Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton, Anthony Braxton. There is music I love from the whole history of jazz and beyond, certainly Charles Ives. I love early jazz, modern jazz, west coast cool school and how could I not mention Captain Beefheart?

AAJ: Or else Fast 'N' Bulbous would have never come together.

PJ: That music was certainly a strong influence on me and still is to this day. The other important influence on me was Steve Lacy. I did meet him and talk to him on a number of occasions. He is one of the greatest musicians ever and certainly one of the most influential on my composing and playing.

AAJ: Do you normally have a particular group in mind before you start writing?

PJ: Absolutely, I usually write for the specific group or a project. Right now I am working on a project that is about Australian shorts, silent films from their early history. I have a band in Australia that I call the Greasy Chicken Orchestra that my arrangements of music by Louis Armstrong, Jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and I have started writing some tunes that are kind of in the style. I usually have a few projects percolating along at the same time. What is going to be interesting about the gig at Smalls next week, I am going to be performing stuff from across my repertoire, so a few things of early jazz from The Greasy Chicken Orchestra, a couple of Micros tunes, a couple of tunes from some of my other groups across the breadth of my career, all played by this one group, I think it will be interesting. [Note: subscribers to SmallsLive.com can view this performance live via web streaming or view it as a video archive beginning a few days after the show].

AAJ: I wish I could be there.

PJ: I would really love to do a tour of The Adventures of Prince Achmed, I am just trying to figure out how to do it, to find some substantial presenters.


AAJ: How is your approach to composing for a silent film vs. a modern film?

PJ: I was led to compose for silent films by my professional work as a contemporary film composer, I have done music for about ten to eleven films across a wide variety of styles, from working on Hollywood films to documentaries. The big difference is that the director is dead in the silent film, so that allows me to have a lot more freedom as a film music composer. Many [modern] film composers have done amazing stuff, but that means working under certain amount of constraints in a contemporary film and ultimately serving the director's vision. I view a silent film as a kind of multi-media collaboration, where the visuals, narrative and music have a certain amount of weight, i.e., they function quasi-independently. You can be a lot more flexible in your allegiance to the presumed narrative.

AAJ: And your instrumentation is not limited to that of the 1920s that was available.

PJ: Yes, I write contemporary scores for silent film, which has grown to be quite a broad area of practice, there are electronic, folk, jazz and rock scores, the area of new music for silent films has become quite a fascinating and broad one. It is a small subset of people who do music for silent films today, who try to reproduce a historical silent film score from the 1910s or 1920s, like the Mont Alto Orchestra and I think there work is terrific.

AAJ: You have recorded a number of scores that you've written for silent films and issued them on CD, yet there your modern soundtracks do not seem to be available commercially.

PJ: There are a couple of factors that come into play. One is a silent film traditionally has music all the way through it. A contemporary film usually has music in smaller pieces and they assemble a soundtrack recording, I've had that exact experience. I did for a substantial score for the Paul Mazursky film Faithful, with Chazz Palminteri, Cher and Ryan O'Neal. There was a lot of conflict between Paul and the studio that contractually prevented us from releasing that film score. It had great musicians from the same scene when I came up: Dave DouglasSteve Bernstein, Mark Feldman and many others, but it has never been released, there is a CD's worth of material just sitting there, in the digital realm. In the case of my silent film scores, I would love to release them with the films, not just as audio, but in every case so far, it has not been a contractual situation where I have permission to do that. Somebody owns the film and put it out with a certain score and there is not enough financial interest in a silent film to justify numerous releases. I have not been able to release any of the films with the music that I have written so far. I like to think that my music stands on its own.

AAJ: I have enjoyed each one of your silent film CD scores and I try to imagine what each film must be like.

PJ: Some day I hope to have them available with the films, I just haven't figured out how to do that.


AAJ: What led to your move to Australia?

PJ: My wife is Australian and I met her in New York. We fell in love, married, had two kids and went on living there. At a certain point she wanted to go back to Australia and I am always up for an adventure and thirteen years later, we are still there. During that time I have come back to New York quite regularly to perform, record and work on various projects. I made a decision that I wasn't going to come back this year so I could focus on some things in Australia. Now I am back, taking my son to visit colleges.

AAJ: Has living in Australia influenced your music?

PJ: That is an interesting question, the answer is yes and no. One of the greatest pleasures of living here in Sydney is that there are some of the most amazing musicians whom I have ever played with. It has been really exciting and fun. There has been a lot of great music going on there. As far as influencing my music, it is hard to say. Once you get to a certain age, you become more and more of yourself rather than taking on a lot of influence. Living in Australia has not changed who I am as a musician. I think that has already been formed and I am just refining the ideas I have had and try to perfect them. I do take on a lot of new ideas, my Prince Achmed soundtrack utilizes electronic loops and samples, that is a little different from what I have done before. I do not know if that is an aspect of being in Australia or just music as it develops.

Future Projects

AAJ: What projects are you working on or have on the drawing board?

PJ: I am mainly focused on my Australian silent film thing and also hoping to write a book about film music. The main thing is to organize my life so I can find the time. Beyond that I have a lot of little things I'm doing like finishing some of the works for the project I did with Art Spiegelman, making them as kind of a free-standing project. I want to record my early jazz group The Greasy Chicken Orchestra. I am gathering some pieces I have written separately to hopefully put together a record with some solo saxophone and multi-tracked saxophone stuff.

AAJ: Are there opportunities to tour Australia with your working group?

PJ: It is pretty hard, some people manage to do it. I have performed some of my music at silent film festivals around Australia, but I have not really toured on the road because there are just a few large cities spotted around the edge of the country and you can go a long way between gigs. In Perth, the nearest large city of any size is 2,000 miles away. I try to get out of Sydney and play from time to time in Adelaide or Perth. It is very expensive to travel with them outside of Australia. There is also a substantial work permit fee for Australian musicians to play in the U.S.

At Smalls

AAJ: Who will be with you at Smalls?

PJ: It is an amazing band, with people from different projects and almost the exact same instrumentation as Big Trouble. I am not playing any of the same material, but there is a relationship, the trombone, soprano, baritone front line. I was thinking about that group a lot when I put this band together. Dave Hofstra, who has been in many of my bands. Michael Hashim, an old friend who has been in the Microscopic Septet for the last ten years or so. Joe Fiedler, the trombonist from Fast 'N' Bulbous. Neal Kirkwood, a New York jazz piano played who subbed in The Transparent Quartet. The drummer is Rob Garcia, the great Brooklyn jazz composer who I started playing with on the Art Spiegelman project, who is fantastic.




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