Philip Johnston: “It’s going to be fun, it’s going to be hot, and there’s going to be cider”

Sydney and New York should consider themselves lucky to share an artist of the caliber of Philip Johnston. The inventive Jazzman divides his time in both cities, playing with the legendary Microscopic Septet, or his own Greasy Chicken Orchestra. His music is a sardonic take on hot jazz through an avant-grade prism, as will discover anyone going to his gig at the Riverside Theatre Parramatta on Sunday, for an afternoon of cider tasting and jazz. How would you describe the music you’re going to play at Parramatta Riverside on Sunday?

Philip Johnston: The music is drawn from a range of sources across my career/repertoire. Some of the tunes are from very early on in the Microscopic Septet book, from the early 80s, and others are from the new Micros CD Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play The Blues which is coming out in January on Cuneiform Records in the US. Others are drawn from the repertoire of The Greasy Chicken Orchestra, a band that has a monthly gig at Foundry616 and plays my arrangements of early jazz of the 20s and 30s. Others are drawn from other obscure pockets of my repertoire from various bands.

In short, it’s going to be fun, it’s going to be hot, and there’s going to be cider. 

AJN: How did you decide on the band’s line-up? 

PJ: I’ve had the very good fortune to play with some of the best musicians in Australia since I first came here. The first musician I met the first time I came to Sydney was Lloyd Swanton, and through him I met the musicians that I would play with in my first gigs here: Sandy Evans, Alister Spence, Toby Hall, many of whom I’ve continued to work with to this day. The 7-tet is a combination of some of the best younger players I’ve heard in Sydney (Peter Farrar, Jeremy Rose and James Loughnan – these guys are amazing!) and some players who closer to my own generation (Lloyd Swanton, Alister Spence and Nic Cecire – also amazing!), though I think I can safely claim to be the oldest guy on the bandstand.

AJN: In what way is the septet’s sound derivative to what you’ve been doing with the ‘Microscopic Septet’?

PJ: The PJ 7-tet is not ‘the Australian Microscopic Septet’. The Micros is a band that has a 35-year history and features some of the most unique, and just the downright weirdest, musicians I’ve ever known. That band features only original music, by myself and pianist Joel Forrester (plus our arrangements of Thelonious Monk tunes, and few other anomalies), and is really about those individual musicians. I would love to bring the Micros out to Australia so people here could enjoy this iconic ensemble, but I haven’t yet found a way to do it, though I’m still hoping it can happen somehow, someday. But in the meantime, I want to share some of the history of my music with jazz fans here, and I’ve made a band that can play this music and also other things that I’ve done for this instrumentation over the years.

AJN: And how is it different from the Greasy Chicken Orchestra?

PJ: The difference between this group and the Greasy Chicken Orchestra is that, although they share many of the same musicians (though with some significant differences: the GCO features pianist Peter Dasent and guitarist/banjoist Tim Rollinson), the GCO is really about celebrating the music of the ’30s and some of the iconic American jazz composers of that time: Duke Ellington, Jelly Roll Morton, Lil Hardin and Don Redman, to name a few. I’m playing a little  bit of that repertoire at Parramatta Riverside in the hope that people who hear it may decide to check out more of it at the GCO Foundry gig.

AJN: You have a way of making 30s hot jazz sound avant garde (or vice versa). What is your secret?

PJ: There’s no secret, but I will admit that when I write my own arrangements of ’30s jazz tunes, I do add some small elements of my own style. For example, in my arrangement of Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Froggie Moore Rag’ (alternate titles: ‘Frogimore Rag’, ‘Frog-I-More’ Rag…), there is a central motif that re-occurs a number of times in the tune. In a ‘normal’ arrangement, it would always be played the same way, but in my arrangement, every time it re-occurs, I change the rhythm slightly from the original, using different kinds of stop-time figures or diminuting or augmenting it and so on. In the same arrangement I also add a paraphrase of a Thelonious Monk solo into a composed piano break. The arrangements are mostly extremely faithful to the originals, except occasionally when they are not.

Also, the soloists are not required to play completely ‘in the style’ of the ’30s. Everyone plays their own version of this style–what would be the point of doing it if you didn’t?–but also adding other elements, myself probably the most of all. The important thing is that it’s all done with a deep love of this music.

My feeling is that if you are going to play great music of the past, there is no point in doing it, unless you are able to put your own spin on it, to contribute something. This idea drives my silent film scores as well. If not, why bother doing it? The originals already did it perfectly.

AJN: Who are your heroes?

PJ: The term ‘heroes’ has too many unfortunate associations; I prefer ‘mentors’. I have learned almost everything I know about music through the generosity of the musicians I’ve been lucky enough to play with. When I was young that was especially true with some of the first people I played with regularly, such as Joel Forrester and John Zorn. That continues on today and I continue to learn from the musicians in the 7-tet every time we play together.

I’ve also been inspired by and mentored by the great musicians I’ve listened to and read about and known, and I’m particularly drawn to people who are truly original and off-the-beaten-path. Some names that always come up are Steve Lacy, Thelonious Monk, Don Van Vliet (aka Captain Beefheart), Charles Ives, Harry Partch, Conlon Nancarrow, Raymond Scott… there are so many greats.

AJN: What’s the best part of living and working in Sydney?

PJ: The people, the swimming, the musicians, my family.

AJN: What part of living in NY do you miss the most?

PJ: The food, the friends, the music, the gigs, my personal history. Mostly the friends.

AJN: Cider: apple or pear?

PJ: Apple.

AJN: What is your poison of choice?

PJ: Politics.

AJN: Jazz today lacks a sense of humour. Discuss.

PJ: That’s not funny.

AJN: Which song best describes your current state of mind?

PJ:  ‘My Mind Capsized’ by Steve Weber.