Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

CD Review: Phillip Johnston – Page of Madness

A horror movie soundtrack like no other. In addition to his substantial body of jazz, Microscopic Septet founder Phillip Johnston gets plenty of film work. This one debuted a full ten years ago at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, played live to the 1926 Teinosuke Kinugasa silent film A Page of Madness by the Transparent Quartet:  Johnston on soprano and alto saxes, Joe Ruddick on piano and baritone sax, Dave Hofstra on bass and Mark Josefsburg on vibes. More a haunting portrait of insanity than outright horror, A Page of Madness has achieved cult status as a rare example of 1920s Japanese avante-garde filmmaking (Kinugasa cited Murnau’s The Last Laugh as a major influence). For reasons unknown, literally dozens of record labels were approached but were unwilling to release this album, notwithstanding the fact that a more recent electronic score is absolutely lame and only detracts from the movie.

From his work with the Micros, Johnston makes a good match for the flick, being no stranger to effective, frequently very amusing narrative jazz. This is a radically different side of the composer and quite a departure from his usual approach in that there is a great deal of improvisation going on. This one-off set was played to a relatively slow 18ips projector speed, most likely to maximize shading and minimize the herky-jerky fast-forward effect that plagues so much of early cinema. Like the film, Johnston’s composition is sad, viscerally intense and frequently haunting, the group’s improvisations sometimes rising to shriekingly anguished crescendos to match the script, by far the darkest work Johnston has released to date. To call it schizophrenic attests to its success in tandem with the visuals. Many of the instrumental pieces, some as long as nine or ten minutes, segue into each other. The central theme is an indignant, twisted little march, beginning on the vibraphone but frequently picked up by the piano or, toward the end, by the sax, sometimes traded off between instruments. Counterintuitively, it’s Hofstra’s snapping bass that launches a fullblown episode on track nine where the central character loses it for good. Johnston flutters and floats more than he goes crazy, while Ruddick, definitely the star of the show here, gets to fly completely off the hinges with crazed runs from one end of the keyboard to the other, a couple of murderously raging chordal passages and some plaintive sax work in tandem with Johnston.

Toward the end, there’s a ten-minute dream sequence alternating between troubled and balmy until a fullscale nightmare sets in, followed by sort of an overture and closing with a breezy, tinkly swing number that wouldn’t be out of place in the Micros catalog, morphing into a snazzy tango only to end somberly with the central march theme. As much as possible, it’s closure, coming to grips with madness. This is treat for jazz and vintage cinema fans alike as well as anyone who enjoys listening to the darkest stuff imaginable late at night with the lights out. Watch this space for live dates by Johnston with his many diverse projects.

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June 10, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

CD Review: Satoko Fujii-Myra Melford – Under the Water

One of the most exciting piano albums of recent years, this Myra Melford/Satoko Fujii collaboration is an intense, often ferociously haunting yet sometimes extremely funny album. Fujii’s Libra Records released a limited-edition run of 500 copies, each with a one-of-a-kind hand-printed sleeve by klezmer accordionist Sachie Fujisawa. Of these, somebody saw fit to send one to l’il ole Lucid Culture [aside: (slap) Get your fingers off that thing! It’s a collector’s item! No, you’re not taking it home, you can listen to it right here]. A series of duo piano improvisations plus one solo piece by each performer, it’s a clinic in good listening (for anyone who plays improvised music, this is a must-own – memo to Libra: PRINT MORE!) and interplay, worth checking to see if it’s sold out yet or if there are (hopefully) more on the way. Each performer’s individual voice asserts itself here, Melford the slightly more traditionalist, Fujii (a Paul Bley acolyte) somewhat further outside. Both pianists use the entirety of the piano, rapping out percussion on the case and manipulating the inside strings for effects ranging from something approximating an autoharp, to a singing saw.

The first improvisation builds with sparse, staccato phrases from inside the piano, like a muted acoustic guitar. The second, The Migration of Fish is a high-energy, conversational feast of echo, permutation and call-and-response. Of the two solo pieces, Fujii’s Trace a River vividly evokes swirling currents, schools of fish and a bracingly cool fluidity. Melford’s Be Melting Snow, by contrast, is a murky, modal tar-pit boogie of sorts, practically gleeful in its unrelenting darkness. Utsubo (Japanese for moray eel) closes the cd on an exhilarating note. Fujii just wants to lurk in her lair and wait for prey, but Melford wants to play! And finally she cajoles Fujii out of her fugue (literally), and then they play tag, and YOU’RE IT! But Fujii isn’t done with lurking. She goes back between the rocks, way down with a pitch-black blast of sound, working both the keys and the inside of the piano and at the bottom of the abyss Melford adds the most perfect little handful of upper-register single-key accents, only accentuating the savagery of the ending. Wow!

May 21, 2009 Posted by | Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment