Perfect Sound Forever


by William York (Sept 1999)

Composer and soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston has occupied a unique place on the musical landscape for the past twenty years, as the leader of such famed (or obscure, depending on your point of view) groups as the Microscopic Septet, Big Trouble, and his most recent venture, the Transparent Quartet. In addition, he has written music for upwards of ten motion pictures, a handful of early 20th century silent films including Tod Browning's 1927 film, THE UNKNOWN (see the Avant CD of the same name), as well as several dance and theatre productions. What ties these diverse efforts together are, among other things, a sharp sense of humor and a wide-ranging yet individualistic writing style that defies easy classification, even amidst the surrounding New York city 'downtown scene.' He has also written some of the more memorable tunes to emanate from the world of jazz music since... well, since a long time ago.

Perhaps it is the lack of a convenient marketing term (what do you call a sax-heavy little big-band mowing through twisted Ellington-inspired arrangements with the enthusiasm and attack of a teenage garage band, or a drumless West-coast jazz influenced group playing a Raymond Scott song, anyway?) coupled with a string of old-fashioned bad luck, that have kept his music from reaching the wider audience it deserves. He's released ten albums (including four with the Microscopic Septet) in 17 years, of which six are currently available on CD. The past few years, however, have seen an encouraging trend, as more of his music has become available for people to hear. Koch Jazz has reissued the first Microscopic Septet CD, as well as the first effort by the Transparent Quartet. They also have plans to release another TQ album sometime in the fall of '99, along with a reissue of Normalogy, a 1996 CD which presented a portion of the many unrecorded tunes originally meant for the Micros, only to disappear when its record label slid off the map. Additionally, a highly listenable and enjoyable sampling of his soundtrack work can now be heard on the Tzadik CD Music for Films, released in mid-1998.

Johnston stopped by WXYC in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, during a trip this past January, to talk about both his music and that of a few of his influences, as well as to endure a few Barbara Walters-like questions probing the mysterious past of the Microscopic Septet (he didn't break down into tears, fortunately).

PSF: There's a quote by critic Kevin Whitehead in the liner notes to one your albums on Black Saint saying that your music seems to move back and forth between decades as you're listening to it. I've noticed that this seems especially true with the music on your Music for Films CD.

PJ: Well, the problem is that some of the decades that my music moves back and forth between never actually happened... If they were all real decades that had actually occurred in history I think it would be much more beneficial for me. Nevertheless, you play the hand you're dealt. So, I think, as a film score composer, it's very useful to be able to move between different genres. In my particular case, I have a love of different styles of music. I would like to think that my music is not "eclectic" without a unifying factor; I'd like to think that it's held together by the overall imprint of my own world view or vision of music in the world. I hope that's true. But I do love a lot of different types of music and I think that I've always wanted to incorporate the things that I love into the things that I do. As everything is built on the past, so is the music that I do, but I like to think that it has its own unique point of view.

The last film that I did was called FAITHFUL, by Paul Mazursky, starring Cher and Chazz Palminteri and Ryan O'Neal. That music, unfortunately, we couldn't include on the Music for Films CD. The soundtrack was never released.

PSF: They've got the rights to it?

PJ: Yeah, yeah, we don't have the rights to it unfortunately. I've had the very good fortune to work with some fantastic musicians, and on the FAITHFUL soundtrack you have people like Dave Douglas, Guy Klucevsek... a lot of great musicians, as worked on the music on my Music for Films CD. And I wish people could get to hear it, but, at least for the moment, it's not gonna happen.

PSF: Part of a running theme, it seems like.

PJ: [laughs]

PSF: Is it true that you were primarily self-taught, at least up through a certain point in your career?

PJ: This is true, I'm basically... For various reasons I didn't end up going to college. I started my career as a player and became more and more interested in writing, but by that point it was kind of too late for me to go to college (because I had to earn a living) so I sort of learned on the job. But over the years I've studied quite a bit privately. I couldn't really stop my whole life and go back to school, but I studied harmony and counterpoint and orchestration with a private teacher from Juilliard and so on. Mostly I just learned from the people I worked with. I had the very good fortune to work with some really great musicians who were generous in sharing their knowledge with me, and I learned on the job. When I had a film scoring job and I had to write a string quartet, I went and got a book and said, "Hmmm, what notes can this instrument play?", and just asked everybody a lot of questions as I was going along, and that's how I learned.

PSF: The reason I asked that is that I saw mention in the Transparent Quartet CD [The Needless Kiss] of some recent experience you've had with a teacher...

PJ: That was Edward Grana, who I studied counterpoint and orchestration with.

PSF: Has that changed your approach to writing?

PJ: Well, I think as composers we're always trying to take in new input and to grow. I started studying with Edgar at a time in my life when I felt like, "Ok, I can do what I'm known for doing (basically the music of the Microscopic Septet, that type of music, very jazz-based) but I want to continue growing and evolving, I don't want to just grind out the same stuff." So I felt like I was at a point where I needed to take in some new input. Now, I had already written quite a bit of contrapuntal-type music (let's just take the example of counterpoint), but formally studying counterpoint just gave me a new kind of perspective. It made me think about things differently.

PSF: Did that have anything to do with your choice of instruments for this new group [sax, vibes, bass, and piano or baritone sax]?

PJ: I think during the years that I was studying with Edgar, taking in a lot of chamber music, definitely piqued my interest in the idea of a group without drums. That was part of it, and I think some of the compositional ideas that I'd been working with, I thought it would be interesting to deal with a different instrumentation than I had been working with for most of my career as a jazz musician.

PSF: You've mentioned Captain Beefheart as being one of your first inspirations, and one of the songs on The Needless Kiss ["Pipeline"] is dedicated to him.

PJ: When I first heard the music of Captain Beefheart, which was about 1970 or '71, I heard Trout Mask Replica, which was new then. It was one of the things that really got me excited about music, and I would say that spark of enthusiasm was part of what made me want to be a musician. And to this day, I still think it's one of the most amazing records ever made. And talk about counterpoint, it's one of the most contrapuntal records ever made every instrument filling a different function. It still bears a great deal of relevance to what I'm doing today. "Pipeline," in a sense, was my attempt to take the kind of timbres and instrumentation that I have in the group that I have now, the Transparent Quartet, and take some of the ideas of Captain Beefheart and make them into a tune filtered through my own experience and so on. So, in a way, it's kind of like a little intellectual trick of a way of coming up with a tune, but to me there's a very strong influence in a number of different areas.

PSF: Some of the musicians and composers who pop up either as musical reference points or whose music you've done covers and arrangements of on your albums Raymond Scott, Steve Lacy, and Herbie Nichols, for example seem to share with you, among other things, the quality of being slightly off the main "stream" of where the music is going, if that makes any sense. Maybe we could talk about Scott first since he was the earliest.

PJ: Well I think Raymond Scott is in a sense a very different case than Herbie Nichols and Steve Lacy in the sense that he was not really... to me Raymond Scott's music is not really jazz. It's influenced by jazz, [but] it's totally composed music, and it's not aiming at an improvised kind of rough-shod aesthetic. It's extremely precise, and it's just a whole other thing. In a way, it's sort of like Captain Beefheart in the sense that it's grouped together with other things that are contemporaneous with it, but in a way it's almost like it's own stream by itself. I feel to a certain extent similarly about Steve Lacy. But of course I love the humor of his music (Raymond Scott), and I love the angularity of his tunes and the sort of sudden shifts and the putting together of things that don't feel that they should belong together. Which is of course something I like to do in my music too.

PSF: What about Herbie Nichols? In the liner notes to Normalology, you say you've "always had an unhealthy obsession with artists whose careers were considered failures on some level during their lifetimes, Herbie Nichols, for example."

PJ: Yeah, well, that's just one of my own typical twisted obsessions. I sort of see myself in the same vein. Like most artists I'm simultaneously incredibly insecure and a raging egomaniac, so I always feel that my own accomplishments, whatever they are, are utterly non-existent and whatever anyone else is doing is much more significant and successful. But I definitely find that, looking back through history and at the way people existed in their own time and were perceived by others, and then seeing how, once time has gone by, how they're perceived, is sort of like... it's comforting to see how little the two things have to do with each other. It can also be incredibly depressing - some of them are very sad stories. But just to know they're completely divorced from one another... Of course, after you're dead, who cares? [laughs]

The main thing is I just love the music of Herbie Nichols and I just think it's so amazing, and it's music that hasn't really been played that much by other people. Fortunately, now it's starting to be... there's a group in New York...

PSF: The Herbie Nichols Project?

PJ: Yeah, doing wonderful interpretations of his music. And more people are playing it, so to me that's very exciting, because you can do a lot with it. I think it's similar in a way to Monk's music, in that the tunes are just so flexible. They're not like a lot of other tunes that are basically what they are, and that's that. You can just keep reinventing them over and over again and they're constantly revealing new stuff.

PSF: In some ways, on the surface, it might sound similar to what was going on at the time [jazz in the mid-late '50's] just because of the instrumentation and some of the mannerisms, but at the same time it's different and really just enough 'off' to not fit in. Although you listen to it now and wonder exactly why it didn't.

PJ: I do too, and I think it's extremely mysterious. I think that's one of the things about history, is that I think from this point in time, we can never really know what the real story is, why Monk eventually caught on and why Herbie Nichols never did. Personally, I think there's something they're not telling us. I think there's a secret mystery as to why, and nobody's talkin' about it [laughs]. But I might just be totally paranoid.

PSF: I was going to ask about the Microscopic Septet...

PJ: Oh, that's a secret mystery, I can't talk about it!

PSF: Well, I just found an album this year - that was the first time I heard it. They weren't too easy to come by until the first one was reissued [Take the Z Train]. And I listen to that and I just wonder how that music didn't end up getting the same recognition as some of the other groups in New York during that same era.

PJ: People used to tell us we were simultaneously behind the times and ahead of the times, and I really don't know what to make of that. You know, we played a lot of gigs and we had a great time, so I can't really complain. We had a great relationship with our audience, we toured Europe, we played at the JVC Jazz Festival, but we never made it up to that next level of national recognition that maybe some of our friends did. And why? Who knows, but you can just go crazy asking yourself those questions. I felt it was just better to move on to the next thing and keep evolving into even more obscure groups [laughs].

PSF: Yeah, I didn't mean to try to drudge up any bad thoughts...

PJ: I know, it's terrible, now I'm totally depressed!

PSF: I guess the association is that it leaned more towards the Knitting Factory side of things, but it's almost as different from that as it is from the mainstream hard-bop revival.

PJ: It's true, we didn't really fit, and the stuff I'm doing now, it doesn't really fit into any particular camp. Which is why, when I read these articles in the jazz press about this dichotomy between the so-called "Wynton Marsalis School" of, you know, bringing back the old Blue Note-era music, and then the so-called expressionistic free jazz that's associated with the Knitting Factory, and then I go, "Wait a second, that means I totally don't exist!" You can imagine how I felt quite tweaked about that. But, there you go.

PSF: Getting back to Herbie Nichols, Steve Lacy has played a lot of Herbie Nichols' music, and I was wondering if there was a connection there in terms of your interest in Lacy, or if it came because he played the soprano saxophone. Or did he turn you on to the playing the soprano?

PJ: Well, I think I discovered the music of Herbie Nichols and Steve Lacy around a similar time when I was pretty young. There used to be this Blue Note reissue that was out, a double album at the time, and I just fell in love with it. I was already way into Monk. How I started playing the soprano saxophone, I think it was a combination of... I was already into Steve Lacy and I was also very into Sidney Bechet. I love early jazz and it's one of the biggest influences on my own music the music of Fletcher Henderson, early Duke Ellington, Sy Oliver, that era, and even the music of Sidney Bechet and Louis Armstrong. I was also playing in Dixieland bands as part of what I was doing for a living at the time... and I just love the sound of the [the soprano sax] and that's what drew me to it.

PSF: You seem to avoid the more nasal sounds that can come out of the soprano of course I mean that as a compliment, because the instrument can take on a sound that's, at least, not one of my favorites.

PJ: Mmm, the soprano is a much-abused instrument, but I save the nasal sound for my speaking voice.

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