Saxophonist, composer, bandleader
A solo artist, bandleader, and composer since the early 1970s, Phillip Johnston is regarded as one of New York City’s groundbreaking contemporary jazz musicians. As a member of the Microscopic Septet, Johnston helped create the “Downtown” experimental jazz movement based in New York City’s famous jazz club, the Knitting Factory, during the 1980s and 1990s. He continued experimenting with the jazz idiom with the subsequent ensembles, Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble and Phillip Johnston’s Transparent Quartet, and became a prolific composer of music for independent films, restored silent films, off-Broadway theater, and contemporary dance performances. Many of his compositions are experimental in nature, blending sound effects, handclaps, and nontraditional instruments, and display the improvisatory influence of jazz saxophonist Steve Lacy and the Delta blues- and Dada-influenced performances of Don Van Vliet, also known as Captain Beefheart. Considered more accessible than the avant-garde compositions of John Zorn after he left the Microscopic Septet, Johnston’s recordings display an eclectic affinity for film and cartoon scores, Tin Pan Alley traditions, bebop and Dixieland jazz, and R&B.
Born on January 22, 1955, in Chicago, Illinois, Johnston was the son of William Johnston, a writer, and Anne Korba Johnston, a secretary. He did not receive a formal music education, and explained to Contemporary Musicians: “When I was young I had a talent for writing prose, and I decided it would be more interesting to go into a field for which I had no aptitude whatsoever.”
He attended New York University in the 1970s and taught himself to play soprano saxophone. He played regularly with pianist Joel Forrester, with whom he eventually formed the Microscopic Septet in the early 1980s. The band’s original name, Claude Funston and the Psychic Detectives, derived from an underground comic by San Franciscan counterculture artist Bill Griffith, but Johnston eventually changed the name in time for the group’s 1981 debut at New York City’s Ear Inn.
The Microscopic Septet featured four saxophones, piano, bass, tuba, and drums. Don Davis replaced the band’s original alto saxophone player, John Zorn, while the remainder of the lineup included Paul Shapiro, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone; David Hofstra, bass and tuba; and Richard Dworkin, drums. The group defied categorization, confusing even audiences accustomed to both traditional and avant-garde jazz. The Septet, however, freely incorporated influences from the big band/swing era of the 1930s and 1940s, while also engaging in free jazz improvisations. Some critics labeled the band’s music “Surrealistic Swing.” The band’s best recognized recording may well be its Joel Forrester-composed sig-nature theme to National Public Radio’s syndicated Terry Gross program, Fresh Air.
The group displayed a flair for absurdism, dadaism, and humor with such compositions as “Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic School Boys.” In other pieces, the Septet incorporated elements as diverse as tangos and Jewish folk music, often introduced by Johnston in a comic deadpan style. They also performed their own arrangements of compositions by Duke Ellington and Thelonious Monk, and animated film composers Carl Stalling and Raymond Scott.
Together for eleven years, the Microscopic Septet toured the United States, Canada, and Europe, and recorded four albums. When in New York City, they played the Knitting Factory, the venue most often credited as the headquarters for New York City’s “Downtown” jazz movement, which also included such artists as John Zorn, Fred Frith, and Henry Threadgill. Despite their efforts, however, the Microscopic Septet’s lack of recognition and inability to garner a recording contract caused Johnston to disband the unit in 1992.
His next group, Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble, included Hofstra from the Microscopic Septet, as well as Bob DeBellis, soprano, tenor, and baritone saxophone, and bass clarinet; Joe Ruddick, piano, keyboards, and alto saxophone; and a lineup of rotating musicians that changed throughout the band’s recording career. Francis Davis, writing in the liner notes to Big Trouble’s second album, Flood at the Ant Farm, noted that “Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble plays by a different set of rules, one that served Jelly Roll Morton’s Red Hot Peppers and even Louis Armstrong’s Hot Fives and
Born on January 22, 1955, in Chicago, IL; son of William (a writer) and Anne Korba Johnston (a secretary); married Rachelle Garniez (a musician), May 6, 1992; divorced, September 6, 1996; married Hilary Bell (a playwright), July 12, 1997; children: Moss Teo Bell Johnston. Education: Studied at New York University, 1972; studied privately with Edgar Grana and Lennie Popkin.
Formed Microscopic Septet, early 1980s; film composer for Lynn Tillman and Sheila McLaughlin film Committed, 1984; Paradise (songs only), 1986; When, If Not Now (songs only), 1987; How To Be Louise, 1988; What Then, 1988; Money, 1989; Money Man, 1992; The Clean Up, 1992; silent 1927 film The Unknown, 1993; The Music of Chance, 1993; formed Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble, 1993; composed music for film Umbrellas, 1994; Faithful, 1995; formed Phillip Johnston’s Transparent Quartet, 1997; composed music for 1907-12 silent film anthology The George Méliés Project, 1997, and for 1926 silent film Page of Madness, 1998; reunited with Microscopic Septet for concert, 2000; released album Normalology, 2001.
Awards: New York Festivals Gold Award, Entertainment Program Openers and Titles for “100 Percent Weird” for TNT, 1992; New York Dance & Performance Awards for Keely Garfield’s Minor Repairs Necessary, 1999.
Member: Broadcast Music Inc. (BMI); Chamber Music America; American Music Center.
Addresses: Home —484 West 43rd St., Apartment 31Q, New York, NY 10036. Studio —303 West 42nd St., Suite 606A, New York, NY 10036. Website —Phillip Johnston Official Website: http://home.earthlink.net/~philjohnston. E-mail —[email protected] link.com.
Sevens so admirably in the early days of jazz, though the resemblance perhaps ends there (this music is postfree, not prebop).” Johnston told Davis: “The weird thing about my approach and everybody else’s in this band… is that it’s like we’re taking the aesthetics of jazz of the twenties, thirties, and early forties and applying them to contemporary whatever you want to call it.” Davis went on to laud the music for its “rhythmic and melodic immediacy, its emphasis on texture, its irreverent mutability… and perhaps most of all its insistence on fun as an aesthetic principle….”
Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble recorded The Unknown in 1997, which Johnston originally composed in 1993 to accompany the restored 1927 Tod Browning horror film of the same name that starred Lon Chaney and Joan Crawford. He was commissioned for a similar task by the Film Society of Lincoln Center to compose a score for the restored 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film Page of Madness, which he performed with his new band in 1998, the Transparent Quartet.
Again featuring Hofstra and Ruddick, the Transparent Quartet lineup also included Mark Josefsberg on vibraphone. The quartet recorded two albums that evidence the influences of Captain Beefheart, Herbie Nichols, and Steve Lacy, including the composition “Pipeline,” which is dedicated to Beefheart. The band does not employ drums, and functioned as a chamber music ensemble whose repertoire incorporates works by Claude Debussy, Frederic Chopin, and Charles Mingus.
Among Johnston’s other works are a soundtrack for an omnibus presentation of short films by French film pioneer Georges Méliès. He also composed soundtracks for films by directors Paul Mazursky, Philip Haas, John Inwood, and Dorris Dorrie. In addition, he composed music for dance and dramatic theater performances. He has composed music for such clients as Ford Motor Company, MTV, VH-1, TV Land, Comedy Central, and Bravo. In 1999, he contributed the music for Art Spiegelman’s Drawn to Death: A Three Panel Opera. In October of 2001, Fast’n Bulbous: The Captain Beefheart Project, arranged and conducted by Johnston, debuted in Reggio Emilia, Italy.
Normalology, Eighth Day, 2001.
With the Microscopic Septet
Beauty Based on Science (The Visit), Stash, 1980s.
Let’s Flip, Osmosis, 1980s.
Off Beat Glory, Osmosis, 1980s.
Take the Z Train, Osmosis, 1982; reissued, Koch Jazz, 1998.
With Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble
Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble, Black Saint, 1993.
Flood at the Ant Farm, Black Saint, 1996.
Unknown, Koch Jazz, 1997.
With Phillip Johnston’s Transparent Quartet
The Needless Kiss, Koch Jazz, 1998.
The Merry Frolics of Satan: The Georges Melies Project, Koch Jazz, 1999.
Music for Films, Tzadik, 1998.
“Phillip Johnston Interview by William York,” Perfect Sound Forever, www.furious.com/perfect/phillipjohnston.html (14-Dec-01).
Phillip Johnston Official Website, http://home.earthlink.net/~philjohnston/ (December 19, 2001).
Additional information was provided by Phillip Johnston and obtained from liner notes for the albums Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble: Flood at the Ant Farm and Phillip Johnston’s Big Trouble.
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