Phillip Johnston: Hofstra's Dilemma

Johnston led the delightfully off-kilter swing/progressive Microscopic Septet from 1980 to 1992, during which time he and founding member John Zorn became two of the darlings of New York's underground music scene in lower Manhattan, for which the Knitting Factory became the key venue. In the '90's Johnston created two new groups, Big Trouble, which unlike the sax-based "Micros" featured trumpets, and the more chamber-like, drummerless Transparent Quartet. On the latter's The Needless Kiss album, Johnston's compositions once again exhibited the depth and breadth of his inspirations, from Captain Beefheart to Nashville, from West Coast Jazz to Chopin, from Raymond Scott to Steve Lacy. However, the only non-studio track, the outstanding "Hofstra's Dilemma," recorded live at the Knitting Factory, is an unusually straight-ahead and unadorned display of these four musicians' exceptional skills.

Johnston plays the boppish, dancing theme with a piercing soprano tone reminiscent of Lacy's, if not somewhat fuller and less dry. The tune's attractive harmonic structure and shifting changes provide Johnston in his solo with many points of impetus that he handles with adroitness and verve. Joe Ruddick is all over the piano in his feature, revealing a formidable technique as he executes rollicking arpeggios and slippery runs and glissandos--think Jaki Byard for its diversity of texture. Mark Josefsberg's vibes improv is played with a metallic Red Norvo sound, and like Ruddick, is appealingly unpredictable. David Hofstra's meaty bass solo is a concise but fully realized concoction. Johnston's reprise renews the listener's appreciation of his abilities as both a player and composer. He probably chose to include this track on the CD--recorded a year earlier than all the others--simply because it's so damn good. (Also check out the "Micros'" version on their Seven Men In Neckties compilation.)

September 22, 2009 · 0 comments


Milt Jackson-Ray Brown: Frankie and Johnnie

“Frankie and Johnnie” is just a great jam. Milt Jackson and Ray Brown were inseparable cronies. They were very much like Fred and Barney, Cramden and Norton. Ray was definitely Ralph Cramden or Fred Flintstone. Definitely the leader of the two. I think their kinship really comes across well all through that particular recording. Once again, Ray is in his element, just playing the straight 12-bar blues, having a good time, swinging real hard. Dick Berk is playing drums on this record. This is an early recording session for Monty Alexander on piano, and Teddy Edwards is on tenor. They’ve got their teeth sunk right into the groove, Ray is propelling the band, and they stretch out on the blues for about 10 minutes and have a really good time. You can hear Ray talking to the guys throughout the track. “Yeah, Jackson!” when Milt’s taking a solo. You can hear Ray yelling down to Monty, “Play the left hand.” It’s a really cool, fun track.

September 16, 2009 · 0 comments


Artie Shaw: The Chaser

Shaw was a conflicted, restless perfectionist who did not equate fame and fortune with artistic achievement, but often sought public approval even if it meant compromises he'd rather not make. It's likely that Shaw felt that his brilliant last series of recordings in 1954 were as close as he'd ever come to perfection, and therefore chose to stop playing for good the following year. The tracks were recorded in New York with the newest incarnation of his Gramercy Five--actually a sextet. They were cut in the early morning hours after the band's regular gig at The Embers, and have a cohesive, polished chamber group sound while at the same time swinging with a fresh, uncluttered creativity.

"The Chaser" is an inspiring vehicle for some inventive soloing and group interaction. Shaw's insistently swirling phrases launch the piece, which quickly lead to the "I Got Rhythm" changes of the swing-era style, lighthearted theme. Jones' solo is emblematic of the tart and tidy efforts he continues to produce some 55 years later. Farlow's dense, boppish improv is repeatedly jump-started by jabbing background riffs from the band. Shaw follows with his uniquely piercing tone and seemingly effortless execution of intricate extended passages. Group riffs also support Roland's attractively rhythmic, effervescent solo, and also Potter's compelling, well-recorded statement. Shaw and the exuberant Kruger then engage one another in a discourse blessed with laudable continuity and agile responsiveness. Potter, Shaw, and Roland all get second go-rounds before the theme's spirited reappearance.

June 18, 2009 · 0 comments


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