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Phillip Johnston: Normalology

Microscopic Septet leader/founder Johnston recreates the saxophone quartet cum rhythm section of that historic (1981-’92) if under-appreciated ensemble. Charter (and almost charter) members aboard tip the balance toward the original MS: bassist David Hofstra, drummer Richard Dworkin, tenor man Paul Shapiro. New guys are Allan Chase (alto), Robert deBellis (bari), Joe Ruddick (keyboards).

This set of MS classics (which missed being documented during the infamous “Micro recording ban”) resemble neo-swing-band-era charts, hewing to the warning title of straightness, incorporating simple tunes, not-so-simple licks (a few with swivel-head turnarounds), clean voicings, and slightly wooden solos. Johnston defies the formulaic, just barely, with numbers that are credibly cutesy and cleverly cogent, in the Raymond Scott tradition. He does not, however, update into realms of contemporary expression, as does clarinetist Don Byron, and as he himself has done with his Big Trouble (Soul Note). Johnston here is content to remain comfortably recidivist in terms of rhythmic stability (mostly 2/4 and 4/4), harmonic consonance, and conceptual nicety.

It helps to keep in mind, of course, that Johnston wrote a lot of this material originally for underground films and musicals and commercials. So, beyond small-band swing and poppery, he also comes up with ready flashes of urbane funk (“Life’s Other Mystery” with organ, wah-wah guitar, and honk horn, and a Jimmy Giuffre a capella countrified chorale), Kurt Weill-ish exotica (“My Grey Heaven”) with lush voicing and abrupt end, and all-written set pieces (“Slave Labor”). Arch wisps of fantasy for solo piano (opening “No Mistakes In Hell”) add a novel texture. Amusingly or maddeningly, Johnston’s tongue seems firmly planted in his cheek; through it, he manages to play a cool, smooth soprano solo on “Twilight Time Zone” and elsewhere.

Originally Published