The Needless Kiss was the first CD by Phillip Johnston's Transparent Quartet, the drummerless quartet he formed in the late 1990s after leading The Microscopic Septet and Big Trouble. It was released in 1998 on Koch Jazz, but is now out-of-print, due to the corporate downsizing of that label. In addition to originals by Johnston and pianist Joe Ruddick, the group played distinctive arrangements of tunes by a variety of composers, for instance on this CD, Frederic Chopin & Raymond Scott.
The second CD by Philip Johnston's Big Trouble is jazz mixing great musicianship with a touch of madness. He treats Steve Lacy's "Hemline" as if it were penned by Raymond Scott (whose music was adapted for classic Looney Tunes cartoons) and "Bone" sounds like a wild improvisation on a childhood chant. Pianist Joe Ruddick's "Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken" has a nifty calypso beat with an intense cacophony of reeds and brass. Johnston is also a gifted composer; his "Pontius Pilate Polka" blends folk dances with swinging Dixieland interludes. "Mr. Crocodile" is a light samba with a touch of reggae. Highly recommended for fans of the great melting pot of jazz.
The Unknown is saxophonist/composer Phillip Johnston's soundtrack to the 1927 silent film of the same name. As with much of Johnston's other work, the music here is a witty, often changing mix of sounds and styles from various eras. Appropriately, there is an emphasis on various film music archetypes, although not just from the silent film era, but from more modern times, too. The tracks weave in and out of frantic, polka-driven chase-scene themes, genteel waltzes, nostalgic parlor-room piano sections, sultry noir-jazz passages, and more. Johnston also adds in more modern elements, from dissonant horn harmonies and free-leaning improvisation to a few rock-oriented rhythms and even some electronic/synthesizer touches.
Really, why should this music be called avant-garde? Should a band as gloriously fun as Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble really be given a stylistic label equated by many with either difficult art music or deadly serious free jazz? Yes, in the '90s jazz world, the enormously engaging saxophonist/composer and his band of accomplished musical pranksters definitely fell on the avant side of things, but that was more a reflection of the sorry state of the mainstream, in comparison to which, of course, any era's avant-garde is defined. In a rational world, Johnston's first post-Microscopic Septet project would be seen as appealing to a very broad audience segment – say, those with ears on the sides of their heads.
Page of Madness is an original film score for Teinosuke Kinugasa’s Japanese 1926 silent film masterpiece, Kurutta Ippeiji, (A Page of Madness). It was recorded in 1998, and is just being released on CD now for the first time. It features The Transparent Quartet, and was recorded by Jon Rosenberg.