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Phillip Johnston: Back From Down Under

Ken Dryden By

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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.


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