When A Soprano Meets A Piano: Microscopic Septet co-leaders release live duo recording
Joel Forrester and Phillip Johnston
Live At The Hillside Club (Asynchronous 002)
"There is a certain sparkling, effervescent quality to this music, an elegance rich and satisfying like a great scene from a Woody Allen movie when they were still worth seeing. Mr. Johnston is a fine soloist who brings poignancy and poise to these songs. Mr. Forrester's playing is refined yet economical, sounding as if he is drawing from a wealth of styles and traditions. Even the four Monk covers are done with both craft and reverence and filled with little surprising twists.
This disc is one of the most laid back and enchanting offerings we've listed in recent memory."
- Bruce Lee Gallanter, Downtown Music Gallery
"Joel Forrester (piano) and Phillip Johnston (soprano) have a gift for composing quirky yet unforgettable songs. Co-founders of the Microscopic Septet, which was fortunately revived a few years ago, they have also recorded extensively under their own names. Live at The Hillside Club, recorded in 2010, is a rare opportunity to enjoy them in a duo setting...No matter what configuration a band may have, the presence of Forrester and Johnston guarantee memorable music."
- Ken Dryden, New York City Jazz Record
In November of 2010, Joel Forrester and Phillip Johnston embarked on a short tour of the West Coast to promote the Microscopic Septet's CD Friday The 13th: The Micros Play Monk (Cuneiform Rune 310). They did radio interviews, and played gigs as a duo, as they had for years, and as part of the promotion of the record played Monk tunes, including ‘Well You Needn't.’ They really didn't need an excuse, as they had been playing Monk tunes since they first began playing together in the early 70s.
Nov 26th 2010 was a special night at The Hillside Club, in Berkeley, California. Despite almost missing the gig after being trapped in San Francisco in a street rally by Critical Mass, they arrived just a little late, and, leapt on stage and began playing. Fortunately the evening was recorded by the artistic director, Bruce Koball (whose day job happens to be as a recording engineer), because it turned out to be a good one.
Joel Forrester and Phillip Johnston met in 1974 on East Tenth Street in New York City’s East Village when Joel wandered into Phillip’s apartment, after hearing him practicing Monk’s “Well You Needn’t” from the street. Since that time they have played in trios, quartets, septets, and most notoriously in The Microscopic Septet, which they co-lead. But during the past 35 years they have always continued to play as a duo. This is the first time that what they have done in piano bars and casual sit-in sessions has been documented on record.
In a mixed program of Forrester and Monk tunes (including “Well You Needn’t”) and a couple of solos, they express with spontaneity and humor the telepathy that comes of playing together off and on for the past 35 years.
Pianist, composer, and arranger Joel Forrester is one of the most prolific composers to emerge from New York’s Downtown scene and, according to The Paris Free Voice, “the world’s finest improvisational accompanist to silent films.” Composer of more than 1200 tunes, Forrester co-leads the critically acclaimed Microscopic Septet with Phillip Johnston and and has released a number of records of his own quartet. Forrester is perhaps most widely known for composing the theme song for National Public Radio’s Fresh Air with Terry Gross (recorded by the Microscopic Septet), which has been played and heard on American radio more often than any other jazz composition in the last 28 years. Forrester actively performs in both New York and Paris; he has played in Paris at the Louvre, the American Center, the Forum des Images and the Musée d’Orsay and in New York at the Film Forum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Anthology Film Archives.
Critics worldwide have extolled Forrester’s compositional and improvisational expertise. Heather Phares of All Music Guide describes his “complex, often witty composition skills,” while The New Yorker lauds Forrester as “a most agreeably eclectic pianist, and among the most undervalued of jazz composers. The sheer pleasure he brings to a panoply of styles, and to the individual way he absorbs them all, denotes comfort rather than scholarly erudition.” A review from All About Jazz perhaps best locates Forrester in the school of modern jazz:
“Joel Forrester in an undiscovered national treasure. He is brilliant both as a pianist and as a composer. His music is intelligent, witty, and colorful as it looks into the jazz tradition and emerges as something individual and different. Millions have heard his great theme for the NPR show Fresh Air with Terry Gross... The music is identifiably Joel’s—ever-fresh and smartly swinging.”
One of the most active saxophonists and composers (theatre, dance, film scores, and jazz music) to emerge from New York’s Downtown scene, Phillip Johnston has been active as a performer and bandleader since the 1980s, working with John Zorn, Joel Forrester, Elliott Sharp, Eugene Chadbourne, Mikel Rouse, Wayne Horvitz, Shelley Hirsch, Walter Thompson, Earl King, Guy Klucevsek. He founded, led, and co-led several highly acclaimed jazz groups, including The Microscopic Septet, Big Trouble, the Transparent Quartet, and, with Gary Lucas, Fast ’N’ Bulbous: the music of Captain Beefheart. Johnston has released more than a dozen albums under his own name and in various groups/ensembles on a variety of prominent labels, including Avant, Winter & Winter, Tzadik, Black Saint, and Koch Jazz.
After disbanding the Microscopic Septet in 1993, Johnston focused his attention on composing film, theater, and dance scores, in addition to doing work for radio and TV. A prolific composer, he has scored more than a dozen motion pictures, working with such directors as Doris Dörrie, Paul Mazursky (Faithful), and Philip Haas (The Music of Chance). In addition, he’s done scores for silent movies, including F.W. Murnau’s Faust (1927), which premiered at the 2002 New York Film Festival and has subsequently toured Europe, Australia and the US. Johnston has also collaborated with artist Art Spiegelman (Maus) on “Drawn To Death: A Three-Panel Opera”. Johnston’s distinctive compositions are most notable for their defiance of genre and consistently pervasive humor. As Seth Rogovy wrote in the Berkshire Eagle:
“What distinguishes or characterizes Johnston’s work, and what makes it impossible to tame or define in conventional terms, is its willful perversity—its utter unwillingness to stay in one place, its defiance of genre, its universal embrace of the offbeat, its celebration of the quirky, dramatic and surprising gesture. His scores can flow seamlessly from cocktail jazz to horn-laced funk grooves to acoustic chamber music to synthesized electronics to frenzied post-bop to banjo bluegrass to rock ‘n’ roll to ersatz klezmer to cartoon music to skronking metal to Asian harp to
blues guitar riffs to blowzy polka and back to classically-styled, string quartet music.”
In 2005 Johnston moved with his family to Sydney, Australia, where he leads The Coolerators and SNAP and writes music for film and theatre. He continues to return to the US regularly to perform with Joel Forrester, The Microscopic Septet and The Spokes.