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Phillip Johnston and Big Trouble: The Unknown

For the past several years we’ve heard of artists like Bill Frisell and Don Byron crafting live musical accompaniments to silent films. In this case saxophonist-composer Phillip Johnston, a musician and bandleader of interesting wit and dimension, has scored filmmaker Tod Browning’s 1927 silent cinematic vehicle for the great actor Lon Chaney, The Unknown. A tragic tale of self-mutilation by a circus performer with a secret passion for a young girl (played by 18-year-old ingenue Joan Crawford), The Unknown is a story rife with pathos.

Disgusted with today’s clich d, synth-ridden and trite film scoring, Johnston set out to write music possessed of the same emotional depth as its cinematic vehicle. What results is a music that is performed by Johnston’s improvisationally-skilled ensemble, which largely subjugates those talents in favor of the whole. An enterprise that paints pictures for the mind as vivid as the keen imagination and concentration one must address silent film with, Johnston is for the most part successful. That being the case, this is not a disc one would necessarily make return trips to for sustenance, however alongside modern film scores it holds up well.

Originally Published