What’s New? is an email roundtable that draws together persons of diverse backgrounds to discuss the issues shaping jazz and constituent experimental musics in the early 21st Century.
The panelists for this roundtable include:
Joel Forrester, a New York-based composer and pianist. The best-known of his estimated 1,200 compositions is the theme to NPR’s Fresh Air, performed by The Microscopic Septet, which he co-leads with Phillip Johnston. It is estimated that the theme is broadcasted tens of thousands of time each year by NPR affiliates, making it one of the most widely-heard jazz compositions in history. Although he is closely identified with the Micros, Forrester has worked in a variety of contexts, spanning his People Like Us quartet, duos with tap dancers, and playing solo accompaniments to silent films. This latter aspect of his work has garnered Forrester such unabashed superlatives as “the world’s leading accompanist to silent films” (Paris Free Press); he has performed with films at the Louvre, the Brooklyn Museum and the Avignon Festival. The wit that is Forrester’s trademark as a composer is also evident in his book and lyrics for the musical satire, “Fascist Living: A Musical Parody” and in “fictional essays” like “Who Are You? A Fictional Critique of Identity Politics.” For more information about Forrester, visit: joelforrester.com.
Phillip Johnston, currently a Sydney-based composer and saxophonist. When Johnston founded the Micros in 1980, he was already working with such Downtown ensembles as Public Servants and Noise R Us. After the Micros disbanded in the early ‘90s, Big Trouble and The Transparent Quartet became main outlets for Johnston; the nexus between the two ensembles being Johnston’s scoring of silent films by Tod Browning, Georges Méliès and others. Johnston’s collaborators include Maus author, cartoonist Art Spiegelman, with whom Johnston created Drawn to Death: A Three Panel Opera, which examines America's fascination with lurid violence on the one hand and its Puritanism and yearning for "easy fixes" on the other. During the past decade, Johnston has led and co-led a number of projects, including a duo with Guy Klucevsek and Fast ‘n’ Bulbous. Johnston’s Sydney-based projects include SNAP, a saxophone quartet that released Boggy Creek Bop on the Rufus imprint, The Coolerators, an organ quartet whose repertoire spans Lennon/McCartney and Albert Ayler, and Faust, a score with songs to accompany F.W. Murnan’s 1927 film with lyrics by playwright Hillary Bell. For more information about Johnston, consult: phillipjohnston.com.
Bill Shoemaker: There is a lot of humor in the music you’ve written for the Micros. The same is true with Monk’s. I don’t think Monk’s humor is emphasized enough in discussions about his music, which is probably a measure of how humorless jazz has become. Usually, in discussing humor, there’s the distinction made between the person who says pointedly funny things and the person who says rather ordinary things in a funny way. Which attributes do you hear in Monk’s music and how did you approach them in your respective arrangements for Friday the 13th?
Phillip Johnston: You know how people say, “Do you mean ‘funny’ weird or ‘funny ha ha?” The reason humor is so hard to talk about is that people almost always talk about as though there weren’t as many types of humor as there are music. A type of humor I’m quite drawn to in art is a kind of nod and wink which acknowledges the impossibility of the situation we’re in: as artists, as people trying to do something original/personal, as human beings. What we are trying to do is completely impossible, man, and we don’t even know why we’re trying to do it, really, so the only thing to do is laugh. It’s kind of a rueful laugh, but it’s a defiant laugh, and it’s also a mad laugh, because I’m not even sure we know what’s funny.
Joel Forrester: If you detach laughter from its source---as in the wildly-amplified recording played randomly at the old Luna Park in Coney Island---its twisted roots become clear: life as a joke somebody else gets. We humans pretend like the devil to face forward, to believe in time's one-directional arrow; what a character in Anthony Powell called "the camel ride to the tomb". What makes us laugh, along the way, is what rubs against that belief, against the flow: coincidence, weirdness (a word with its roots in destiny), anomaly, freakiness (a word with its roots in dancing). Don't terms of that sort inevitably pop up when Monk is discussed? I reckon that's because he was on his own time...wherever it led. His tunes and his playing of them had the pronounced ability to STOP (temporarily) the listener's participation in the crush of the normal time-vibe, to throw her back on her OWN sense of time, e'er so briefly: community through estrangement? (Something funny about that...)
Shoemaker: Sometimes, people find themselves in the position of finally placing a face to a name. Something similar happened when I first saw photos of some of Monk’s relatives and friends in Robin Kelley’s biography, I saw the name and it started the playback of the corresponding tune. I had placed a face to a tune. The original proposition for Monk and other composers who write about the people around them is the reverse; you essentially place the tune to the face, the elbow or whatever catches your eye and ear. I wonder how much of the original inspiration remains in “Jackie-ing” or “Eronel” and how much is the result of revision. In your own work, particularly when you’re inspired by family or friends, how often does that original phrase or melody survive intact throughout the compositional process, and how often is it modified by ideas that pop up later?
Johnston: This isn’t very romantic, but with most of my tunes that are dedicated to people, I write the tunes first and think of the titles later. Usually I just dedicate a tune to someone because I like them, like the Micros tune “I Saw You In Utah (Idaho)” which was written for an old girlfriend of mine, Roxanne Spring, who was from Idaho, and whom I met at the Hotel Utah in San Francisco, and it struck me that for a city person like myself that there wasn’t really much difference between Utah and Idaho – they might as well be one place, like the fight promoter in A.J. Liebling’s book who says, “The country – it’s a nice spot.” Anyway, an obscure private joke more than a traditional ‘dedication’; bottom line, I just thought she should have a tune dedicated to her, but the tune itself, a riffy bebop tune, wasn’t really ‘about’ her in any specific way (not that I recall anyway). There are some exceptions to this, mostly very sentimental tunes that I’ve written for specific people because I thought they’d like that kind of tune, like the one I wrote for my wife’s grandmother, or the waltz I wrote for our ‘first dance’ at our wedding (though we’d been dancing for a while at that point).
Forrester: My brain, addled by an idea out of Plato, sometimes believes that the tunes I try to write already exist, whole and complete, SOMEWHERE ELSE; that my job is to bring them to being, here. Then it's like fishing: I feel the strike, then the lively weight on the other end; and the question is whether I can land the critter. But the tunes that are born out of improvising with my mates are even more special. No need for idealist fantasy, there! Confusing these two modes was certainly nudged along by my sessions playing for Monk, who was sublimely indifferent to whether I was composing or improvising.
Shoemaker: Monk is now universally venerated, which should be an unqualified good thing, but it’s problematic to the degree that slews of musicians, particularly younger musicians, feel obliged to play Monk’s music in a painfully studied manner; there’s none of the happenstance that Monk conveyed through his music, the feeling that the music just tumbled out onto the keys one day. Instead, you get a politically correct Monk. Your arrangements subvert all that. There’s an irreverence to the garage band tom-fury beat Phillip applies to “Teo;” as breathtaking as it is, Joel’s ending to “Pannonica” is practically heretical compared to the straight-faced versions you now tend to hear. Do you hear Monk as subversive or irreverent? What you would point to as examples?
Forrester: What Monk's tunes subvert is the listener's expectations. In my arrangements (and certainly in Phillip's !), you'll find the attempt to do precisely that; and how better to honor Monk? Victor Zuckerkandl wrote that each succeeding tone in any melody displays "freedom in prospect, necessity in retrospect". I accept that, but it's certainly truer in some cases than others; I'm thinking of "Evidence" and "Off Minor": both tunes inevitably surprise the ear, yet could not be any different than the way they are … Reverence is trickier. Clearly, Monk reveres James P. Johnson; but this gets expressed in an abstraction of stride rather than its imitation. Yet, I have to admit that something subversive in ME warms to the idea of earnest young boppers trying to play Monk his way: all those hollow intervals, all that spaced-out time – how can it not, after a while, throw them back on themselves? They may leave Planet Thelonious and return to Terra, only to find it vastly changed.
Johnston: I have always felt that most of the covers of Monk tunes recorded after his time, take Monk's music, which is edgy and unique and personal and iron it out – make it into mainstream jazz, a genre that I don't enjoy much. To me, most "jazz" is boring – not because it's not "avant-garde" or edgy enough (and I certainly admire and respect the craft involved), but because it lacks character, and it lacks stories. It feels to me to be somewhat generic. I'm drawn to things that have their own unique world view – this is why I always mention people like Monk, Captain Beefheart, Steve Lacy, Charles Ives, Conlon Nancarrow, and Harry Partch in the same breath -- they express their own unique world views. I don't think any of these people were trying to be subversive or irreverent much (though maybe they were), they just were who they were. And by that I don't mean that they were some kind of noble savages, I just think they couldn't resist a compulsion to be who they were, even when it did them practical harm to do so.
But having your own world view doesn't mean a lack of interest in history - your history's a big part of your world view, the part of it you choose to take with you. As Monk took stride, Ives took hymns and patriotic songs, Nancarrow took boogie-woogie, the Micros take Monk (among other things). But you internalize it, you don't copy it, it's just part of who you are.
Shoemaker: Since you mentioned Lacy … Lacy always emphasized how difficult it was to master Monk’s compositions and how much practice it took to get the right, natural feel. What was the hardest Monk tune for you to get right, and how long did it take?
Forrester: Stanley Crouch booked Phillip's and my old band, The Illustrious Others, into the Tin Palace in l981; and he extolled the way we played Monk's "Introspection". But it turned out that what he dug, specifically, was my temporal misinterpretation of a certain moment in the bridge (as I was later to realize after looking at the actual chart). Similarly, I thought I'd long had "Well You Needn't" down pat, until Steve Potts – very politely on a bandstand in Paris – showed me an alternative (and undoubtedly authentic) chord change. And it's only been in the last year of weekly trio gigs that I've awakened to the importance of constantly reiterated dominant 7ths in "Straight No Chaser". So Lacy certainly had a point. But as to the toughest? The Others used to essay "Four in One" – but that was 30 years ago, and I notice that I haven't touched it since. Notice further that I owe it to Phillip for making me work over "Gallop's Gallop". And that I've never even looked at "Skippy".
Johnston: “Straight No Chaser:” 11 hours, 19 minutes and 27 seconds.
Shoemaker: I’ve asked a lot of composers if they thought their music was difficult to play; a surprising number of them replying that, to the contrary, they thought their music was so obviously simple that they didn’t understand why really excellent musicians had a hard time getting the hang of it. Are your own compositions difficult? Do you and your cohorts in the Septet concur?
Forrester: My compositions are so effin' various that no one answer will do...except perhaps an elaboration of that outburst. When I brought "The Dave" into a Micros rehearsal, Phillip pronounced it the best thing I'd ever written: it's a 12-bar B-flat blues with but one hook (a half-beat anticipation) employed all of 9 times; it MIGHT challenge an elementary-school stage band. On the other hand, I couldn't myself play "Recognition Rag" and had to farm it out to the great Joe Kubera; oh, well, I could play it while composing it, but those are unearthly moments and they don't count. My son Max mastered the bop tune "Look To You" before giving up the alto; post hoc ergo propter hoc?
Shoemaker: How and when do you know that a composition you’re working on is destined for either the Micros or one of your other bands, like Big Trouble or People Like Us.?
Johnston: Generally I write music for specific bands or projects. One of the advantages of having a working band is that you write for the strengths/interests of those playing in it. Sometimes I've erred in this regard, and just written the music I wanted to write without taking this into account, and while the people I've worked with are amazing and can do just about anything, I don't think that's making the best use of the musicians you have. Plus, each band has a general set of parameters: instrumentation, but also stylistically: interests, temperament and so on. I started Big Trouble mainly for the instrumentation, but also in part because I wanted to write some music that just wasn't really appropriate for the Micros - there was no group interest in doing that kind of music.
This doesn't include things like chamber music, which almost always is prompted by a commission, or silent film scores which are one of passions and usually take a couple of years from conception to completion.
That being said, occasionally, I'll just sit down at the piano and start writing a tune, but very rarely. I'm almost always working toward some particular goal. I just don't have that kind of leisure - wish I did! Since I work quite a bit in the area of collaborative media (film/theatre), I'm almost always on some mad deadline. I have many, many compositions begun in my head, or even partially written, that have been sitting there for years, while I try to earn a living.
Forrester: Sometimes the moment the bright little brute has announced itself!: what I hear in my head is the band-in-question playing it. But often not. Often a new tune will be played in public as a solo number, once or twice – that's near to necessary, just to make sure it flows and that its flaws are fixable – and then languish in a drawer, sometimes for years. But since I have to keep sidemen and self vaguely intrigued on a constant basis, that drawer gets scoured, maybe monthly, just to see what tunes seem to be pleading for a trio treatment, say, or to be programmed for four loopy saxes 'n' rhythm. I try to give their pleas a sympathetic ear.
Shoemaker: Why are there no brass instruments in the Microscopic Septer?
Forrester: Phillip could answer that question truthfully, if he so chose. Any try by me would likely sound leadenly facetious, such as: "We've always been about CHANGE COUCHED IN CLICHE, Bill. No one talks about 'the BRASS of change,' duzzy?
Johnston: When I started the Micros, my original intent was for it to be a big band. I was very enchanted by the smaller big bands of the 20s and 30s - the Ellington "jungle" band, Fletcher Henderson, and Jelly Roll Morton, and also more modern bands like the larger Mingus Bands, Sun Ra, and earlier arrangement-oriented bands like Gil Evans and Tad Dameron, and I wanted to try my hand at it. But it seemed a bit overwhelming to organize an entire big band so I figured I'd start with the sax and rhythm sections and see how that went. Once we got that going, well, it just took on a life of it's own.
Another part of the impetus was that I was playing in the horn section of a "punk-funk" band called Noise R Us (this was in about 1981) that featured a four-saxophone satb horn section. Two of the other horn players, Dave Sewelson and George Bishop and I wanted to do something else together - I added John Zorn on alto, one of my oldest and best friends who had previously played with Joel and I, and that became the original Micros front line. Both Joel and John and I had been playing together off and on since the mid-70s. There were subsequently changes in the original line-up, but that's how it started.
Just as a technical aside, the saxophone is sometimes called the "bastard instrument," not because of the people who play it, but because it straddles the brass and woodwind sections - it has a reed, but is made of brass. So, I get you, but there are brass instruments in the Micros!