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Phillip Johnston: Normalology

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Normalology contains unrecorded music sopranoist Phillip Johnston composed in the ’80s for the Microscopic Septet. You may recall that band’s combination of good musical taste, wit and professionalism, and thus won’t be surprised by the same creative enthusiasm and humor, or the deliberate camp occasionally on this CD. Several works here were composed for films and never produced theater pieces and musicals. Microscopic devotees may recall the title piece because it evolved from the theme for NPR’s “Poetry International.” Like it, the rest of the CD’s music is playful and memorable, and characterized by excellent arrangements for four saxophones and rhythm section. Tenorist Paul Shapiro and baritonist Bob DeBellis are hard-edged soloists, and bassist Dave Hofstra, doubling tuba, has keen senses for the right textures.

Titles contrast with themes of subtle humor. For tandem examples, “Things Happen” is a simple melody over an um-pah foundation; “Lobster Leaps In” picturesquely reflects the crustacean, though its for a dance scene in a woman’s asylum in the film Committed, and features a droll Ben Websterian tenor solo as deliberately a foil to Prez; and “Almost Right” seems a circa-1958 gift from Sun Ra. Johnston’s lyrics-ready melodies break out into surprising directions, from the tunesmithy to hard bop to the leisurely ballroom mood in “My Grey Heaven.”

This CD’s a fitting jitney ride in the hippest of theme parks.