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Normalology by Phillip Johnston

Rolling Stone has described composer/reedman Phillip Johnston as "the H.G. Wells of the Jazz World." In over two decades he has composed for dance, theater, and films (including silents). However, this chamber jazz octet (soprano, alto, tenor, bari and rhythm) is no simple retro group. As Johnston stated in a recent interview on WXYC Chapel Hill, "As everything is built on the past, so is the music that I do, but I like to think that it has its own point of view." It has indeed. The group may share the time machine with Air and Sun Ra but their emphasis is the blend of creativity and humor so characteristic of Carla Bley, Mingus, Willem Breuker and, dare I say, Spike Jones.

Johnston was a founder and the leader of the 1980's Microscopic Sextet. His bank of unrecorded compositions for Micro forms the foundation of this CD. He takes these accessible tunes (you can, and will, hum them!) through surprising twists and turns. The title track comes first, opening with counterpoint and moving from swing to funk with some powerful solos along the way. The closing "No Mistakes in Hell" starts with piano figures that descend down to the depths, dire sounds from horns and percussion with a quick change to a swinging blues. The tracks in between are flavored with the sounds of klezmer, South Africa, Eastern Europe, funk and early swing. Among them there is a tone poem "Spilled Perfume" that I would subtitle "Ellington meets Free Jazz." Throughout the saxes are wonderful both together and in solos, supported by a hard driving rhythm section which operates equally well plugged or unplugged.

Today, when so much pop music is banal, angry or gloomy it's refreshing to listen to the inspired, probing and high-spirited output of Johnston's octet. They clearly enjoy what they're doing. Creativity and happy music CAN go together!

Additional Info

  • Artist / Group Name: Phillip Johnston
  • CD Title: Normalology
  • Year Released: 2000
  • Record Label: Koch Jazz
  • Rating: Five Stars
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