Rub Me the Wrong Way
Rub Me the Wrong Way
Phillip Johnston has been compared to H.G. Wells, Steve Reich, Charles Mingus, Duke Ellington, Vince Guaraldi, Captain Beefheart, Raymond Scott and Steve Lacy. He has written music for films by Paul Mazursky (Faithful) and Philip Haas (Music of Chance, Money Man) among others and he has led the groups The Microscopic Septet, Big Trouble, and the Transparent Quartet. Currently he is the co-leader (with guitarist Gary Lucas) of Fast 'N' Bulbous: The Captain Beefheart Project, and is touring his most recent silent film score, for F.W. Murnau's Faust, with master accordionist Guy Klucevsek.
Make no mistake about it, Phillip Johnston is a genius. He is truly one of the greats of 21st century jazz Sax. No foolin'. This is his 10th release, his first for Innova. And it's a real gem. Rub Me the Wrong Way is a remarkable record: Avant Garde, but lush, melodic and dare we say it; romantic. Its hard to put into one genre. Oh it's Jazz all right but it also embraces Ragtime, Blues, African music, French Hurdy Gurdy music, film soundtracks and a host of other styles.
It's truly hard to explain what this music sounds like: it's timeless, yet completely of the now, like a vintage tie with a funky new suit. Sincerity, not just showmanship. It might sound like hype but it's not, this is a truly terrific listen.
These smooth sounding cuts are as easy as pie on the ears...and showcase Johnston's prowess on the saxophone. Much of today's modern jazz is cluttered with an overabundance of spontaneous noise..but this is not the case here. Restraint is the word for the day, as Johnston and his associates prove that you can be hipper than the hippest...by playing less instead of more. This is a beautiful and absorbing album featuring seventeen compositions that are reminiscent of some of the great jazz artists of decades gone by. Quite serene...and very real. (Rating: 5++)
Superbe disque du compositeur Philip Johnston, sortis l’année dernière et intitulé sobrement « rub me the wrong way ». Après avoir découvert la pochette quelque peu énigmatique, on se rend compte que la galette est divisée en 3 parties, correspondant à 3 périodes différentes, 3 enregistrements différents ainsi que des formations de groupes quelques peu modelés. La première partie s’intitule « minor repairs necessary » (avec formation bass/saxo/piano) et regroupe 11 titres dans une veine jazz joyeuse et presque dansant, comme nous le démontre le brillant « whodunnit » en ouverture. Rajout d’un accordéon pour la deuxième partie « rub me… » qui est en fait un long titre de 15 minutes dans une veine plus folklorique. Pour finir, on revient vers une ambiance plus jazz posé et sombre pour la dernière partie (« the further adventures of slap & tickle »). Le groupe s’entrecoupe de nombreux breaks à tous moments, et le jeu de Philip Johnston au saxophone est toujours brillant. Amateur de bon Jazz, vous savez ce qui vous reste à faire…
By Punk Sportif
CHAMBER MUSIC MAGAZINE
The Smart, Playful Music of Phillip Johnston One of the first jazz composers to collaborate with other disciplines, Johnston has recently been composing for dance troupes. In the 1970s, New York’s adventurous downtown scene nurtured a sense of possibility and fun. Thirty years later, that playful spirit still lives—i--n it’s initial creators, at least. That’s the evidence of Rub Me The Wrong Way (innova), the latest from the ever-wily and wry Phillip Johnston. Yes, this is the same man who once penned pieces entitled “Pontius Pilate Polka” and “Heaven or Hell or Hoboken,” with its echo of W.C. Fields (“On the whole, I’d rather be in Philadelphia”). Johnston’s new disc is generally a treat: humor, smarts, chops, and a trove of snappy and thought-provoking melodic and harmonic material, in this case written for a dance troupe. Inter-arts collaborations are relatively new in the jazz world, but Johnston was on the scene early. A decade ago he helped launch the now near-continuous wave of writing new scores for silent movies with his brilliant, spiky and engaging music for The Unknown (Avant), a proto film noir by Tod Browning (of Freaks fame) that starring Lon Chaney. Its Johnston-scored accompaniment made clear that the composer knows well how to find humor, humanity and music in even the most outré situations. Railing against “monochromatic” emotions and utter predictability of contemporary film and film music, he writes (in The Unknown’s liner notes), “Where is the room for the delicious irony, the disturbing ambivalence, the unanswered question? The best film music serves as counterpoint to the images and dialogue it underscores: surrounding, cushioning, doubting, mocking echoing, intensifying, subverting, interacting.” That, you might say, is Johnston’s musical credo. Born in Chicago in 1955 and raised in New York, Johnston studied saxophone and piano as a kid, but didn’t really make music his calling until he dropped out of New York University and headed to San Francisco in the 1970s. He built his chops by playing with jazz, blues and polka outfits. It was in the City by the Bay that he hooked up with “shockabilly” guitarist Eugene Chadbourne and saxist-composer John Zorn, a couple of outsiders who helped him blaze his subsequent trails. With their barbed-wire humor and deconstructionist approaches, this pair would soon add impetus to the liftoff of the downtown New York creative-arts scene. When Johnston came to New York in 1979, he formed the Microscopic Septet with Zorn and Joel Forrester. Forrester, who comes from a musical family, was playing piano to silent films in San Francisco before he moved to New York in the mid-1970s to study composition with no less a figure than Thelonious Monk. Zorn was conservatory-trained. Johnston describes himself as largely self-taught. The Micros, as the group was affectionately known, disbanded in 1992; but during its 13 year run, it benefited not just from this confluence of influences, but from close attention to compositional structure—and a shared sense of humor. (Clarinetist Don Byron, another early Micros member, fit in well indeed.) “I was interested in more arranged, compositionally oriented music from within the swing big-band tradition,” Johnston says, “as opposed to the head/string of solos/head format.” This was part of an early 1980s reaction, which included avant-jazz composer-musicians like Henry Threadgill and David Murray, to forty years of post-bebop jazz. The Micros reflected that sensibility admirably: they were a wonderfully dexterous and agile outfit, a kind of Little Big Band that could oscillate smoothly between different themes and moods in ambitious, kaleidoscopic pieces that recalled jelly Roll Morton, Duke Ellington and Charles Mingus. On albums like Take The Z Train, the Micros displayed the traits that still thread Johnston’s (and, for that matter, Forrester’s, Zorn’s and Byron’s) music: a nimble grasp of musical history without reverence or pomposity; an infectious sense of melody; an avoidance of standard structures like the 32-bar tune; a remarkably varied palette of tonal colors; a quick wit that leavens the dense musical texture; and an expansive willingness to try something new. For nearly two decades now, Johnston has written soundtracks for a wide range of silent films, as well as contemporary movies by directors like Paul Mazursky. He cites Raymond Scott as one of his prime musical influences. In the 1930s Scott led a six-piece band that tore up novelty numbers, digit-twisting jazz, and such hard-to-classify flights as his own “Powehouse” and meanwhile penned soundtracks for Looney Tunes. (Byron, a fellow Scott fan, released a tribute called Bug Music on Nonesuch Records several years ago.) After the Micros’ demise, Johnston formed Big Trouble; the new band performed The Unknown score as well as Flood at the Ant Farm (Black Saint), which rifles beats from calypso to samba, from reggae to polka to childhood chants. So it’s hardly a shock that, like many downtown-scene alumni in recent years, Johnston has been busy writing music for dance trouples. The new album collects three such works: “Minor Repairs Necessary,” the title piece, and “The Further Adventures of Slap & Tickle,” which were all choreographed by Keely Garfield and presented by her aptly named Sinister Slapstick Company. Johnston met Garfield when she was choreographing “Slap & Tickle” to an old piece of his called “The Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic School Boys.” “I felt an immediate kinship with and admiration for her unique vision,” Johnston says. “She has developed an original dance language of her own, akin to the personal musical language of a Thelonius Monk or a Steve Lacy.” These two names resonate deeply with Johnston: Monk for his gnarly structgures and mordant ironies and Lacy, who studied with Monk, for his reclamation of the recalcitrant soprano saxophone, Johnston’s primary instrument, and his often eccentric compositions. “Minor Repairs Necessary” embraces 11 pieces (from under two to over five minutes apiece) that have simple descriptive titles like “Crash,” “Mermaids,” “Float,” “Families,” “Cliffs.” The names suggest the music’s whimsy, and a listener can imagine the fun dancers might have with its mood and rhythms – and easily hear why it won a 1999 Bessie. The kickoff, “Whodunnit,” could be called Dixieland Noir, vintage Johnston that mixes a delicious combo of strutting élan and brooding. “Jitter Duel” pairs vibraphones and bass on a melody deforming “Hernando’s Hideaway,” then the muezzin-ish soprano enters, with vocalizing shakes and slurs, and then the precisely hammered piano – a sort of deliberate Rube Goldberg approach to syncopation and texture. “Cliffs” epitomizes some of Johnston’s adroit, light-hearted ways with musical history: themes from “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend,” “Anchors Aweigh,” “Auld Lang Syne,” and “Over There” and distorted and reworked hilariously until they tumble over the edge. By contrast, “Rub Me the Wrong Way” runs nearly 16 minutes and gives Johnston’s compositional chops (and soloists) time to shine. A rhythmic pot-pourri, this piece marries rich thematic material that is constantly revised and revamped to beats that include clave, tango, klezmer, blues stomp, zydeco, polka, circus music, Parisian musette, jump blues, and swing jazz. It spins an often hilarious, always dazzling kaleidoscope of colors and textures; Johnston’s arrangements are almost unerringly enchanting and illustrate the luminous craft he absorbed from masters like Morton, Ellington, Monk, and Mingus and then refined into something all his own. Which is, after all, one core principle of jazz: find your own voice and develop it, train it, enrich it, then project it. And while the outright improvisation on this disc is often limited to extemporizing on the melodies, Johnson incorporates jazz’s heads-up feeling via the fast-shifting instrumental colors and combos he deploys. Once you’ve heard it, you’ll want to see it in action. If the Sinister Slapstick Company troupe and/or one of Johnston’s bands come to a stage near you, don’t miss ‘em.
By Gene Santoro
SYDNEY MORNING HERALD
These pieces were composed by Phillip Johnston as contemporary dance scores. One company to use his work was Sinister Slapstick, a name which, he observes, is an admirable description of his own writing, with its constant clashes between the comical and the eerie. Johnston’s language may be all his own, but it has an immediacy that makes each composition seem like an old friend. Rather than any extraneous ornamentation, there is something approaching austerity. Both observations would count for nothing were the tunes not so glorious and did his orchestrations not so adroitly milk each composition’s mood to the maximum.
On those from Minor Repairs Necessary and The Further Adventures of Slap & Tickle, it is the vibraphone of Mark Josefsberg that creates the buoyancy and air in which Johnston’s saxophone spins like a sometimes giddy, sometimes lonely child. In the Rub Me The Wrong Way pieces, Will Holshouser’s accordion fulfils a more lumpy version of this function.
Fans of Nino Rota, Frank Zappa and John Zorn will find much to admire.
By John Shand
....the results are kind of charming -- the disarming, down-home mood buoys the rest of the album as well. Johnston, who switches between tenor and soprano saxophones, plays with a clear, honest tone that gives the music a boost. Whether he's working the spy-noir sounds of the five-part suite of "The Further Adventures of Slap & Tickle" or the off-kilter Pee Wee Herman orchestration of the eleven part "Minor Repairs Necessary", Johnston and his backing band play their odd compositions honestly and with affection. This makes odd shifts and corny melodies completely engaging, elevating them above the kitsch in which they might otherwise have become mired.
By Ron Davies
ALL ABOUT JAZZ - ITALY
In fact, Johnston individualizes acutely across the soprano the connections between Steve Lacy and the dixieland. Everything is marked by a cleanliness and from a flavor worthy contrappuntistico of the Modern Jazz Quartet. Johnston a revisitation of the tango adds yourselves also, conduct with the same consistent stylistic criteria. In tal manner, it shows how it is able to be modern also confronting traditional cue, od adopting a classic cut in the treatment of the matter.
By Enzo Boddi