An interview with Phillip Johnston from New York to Sydney with Joanne Kee for Jazz Australia

On Thursday Dec 10th 2015 at 8.30PM, the Phillip Johnston 7tet will give a rare performance at Foundry616. The band draws upon some of the finest talent in Sydney, including Peter Farrar: alto saxophone, Jeremy Rose: tenor saxophone,  James Loughnan: baritone saxophone, Alister Spence: piano, Lloyd Swanton: bass & Dave Goodman: drums, as well as the leader on soprano saxophone.

JK: I notice that the instrumentation of the PJ 7tet is identical to that of your New York band, The Microscopic Septet. Is the PJ 7tet the Australian Micros?

PJ: No. The Microscopic Septet is a unique band which is totally based on the personalities of the individuals who make it up. It has the chemistry of a band that’s been together since the early 80s and there is no way to replace that. I’d love to somehow bring the Microscopic Septet to Australia to perform so people here could get a chance to experience that.

However, I don’t have the resources to do that, and don’t foresee it happening any time soon. And I have a large body of work, from decades of writing for this instrumentation, that I’d love to present to audiences in Sydney, and the rest of Australia.

So, the PJ 7tet, which is comprised of some of my favourite musicians in Sydney whom I’ve had the good fortune to play with, plays some of that repertoire, along with other things that the Micros don’t do, or don’t often do.

Here are some examples. We are playing a tune of mine called ‘The Mirror’ that I wrote in the late 70s, which was the fourth tune the Micros ever played, but was not ever recorded on a record until a live performance from Rotterdam in the early 80s was included among the out-takes from Let’s Flip! on Cuneiform’s History of the Micros compilation. And my arrangement of Duke Ellington’s 1920s tune Awful Sad is not among the kind of thing that the Micros does.

We will play some of the Thelonious Monk arrangements from the recent Micros CD Friday The 13th: The Micros Play Monk, and a few of the new things I’ve written for the new Micros CD that we will record in New York in 2016. It helps me to get a chance to try them out here with these great musicians and hear them on their feet, as I am a relentless reviser.

But, like the Microscopic Septet, every one of the musicians in the PJ 7tet are unique individuals, all bandleaders with their own projects and distinctive voices as soloists. It’s exciting to hear my music played by great musicians like these, of whose own projects I’m a huge admirer.

JK: Why do you perform in clubs in Sydney so infrequently playing jazz?

PJ: This is a source of great regret to me. Unfortunately, due to my continued activities overseas–I play regularly in New York with a number of projects, and have been touring internationally with Wordless!, my collaboration with Art Spiegelman–and my various collaborative composing projects, which include most recently my score for Lotte Reineger’s 1927 silent animation The Adventures of Prince Achmed, and the score for Kathryn Millard’s award-winning documentary Shock Room, I’m not left with enough time to pursue this part of my life regularly. However, I’m hoping to do more in 2016, especially with my long-running quartet with Lloyd Swanton, Alister Spence and Nic Cecire, with which I am hoping to finally record, and perform more often in the near future.

JK: What is coming up in the future?

PJ: In 2016 I’m hoping to perform in Sydney my Page of Madness Suite, which was premiered at The Stone in NYC last year, and record the above-mentioned quartet. I’d like to do more performances of my Prince Achmed score around Australia, and I’m hoping to tour Wordless! in Europe in late 2016 or early 2017. I am organising a reunion of my early 1980s rock band The Public Servants with vocalist Shelley Hirsch in New York, and making the new Micros CD for Cuneiform Records. I’ll stop there, but I have a number of other interesting projects that I’m excited about.

Phillip Johnston Septet will are playing at the The Foundry on December 10th. More info here