PHILLIP JOHNSTON

Rub Me The Wrong Way
Innova 626

Dance music — or more accurately music for dance — RUB ME THE WRONG WAY is part of the answer to the question of what pioneering New York downtowner, saxophonist Phillip Johnston is up to these days.

Johnston, whose bands such as the Microscopic Septet and Big Trouble helped define the admixture of jazz, rock and improv that characterized the scene even before John Zorn had his own record label and laptops were as common as drum sets. Although he’s co-leader of Fast ‘n’ Bulbous: the Captain Beefheart Project, Johnston is mostly a composer these days having written music for films from directors like Paul Mazurskay, as well as dance and theatre companies. Choreographer Keely Garfield’s Sister Slapstick company performed the three works replicated here in the late 1990s.

While it’s helpful to have Johnston’s work preserved and the 17 tracks are well-played and voiced so that the various four-piece ensembles express the textures usually found from a larger orchestra, these still are sounds meant to accompany dancers. Several of the themes are fun and funky in themselves, but it would seem that the jazz/improv content is minimal.

Longtime Johnston followers may be most interested in the final four tracks, “The Further Adventures of Slap and Tickle”. Recorded in 1998 — the other pieces date from 2003 — these four feature one of the final performances of his Transparent Quartet, featuring the composer on tenor saxophone, Joe Ruddick on piano, bassist Dave Hofstra and Mark Josefsberg on vibraphone.

The jazz/improv bone fides of the band members are high — Hofstra, for instance has played with everyone from Zorn to William Parker’s Little Huey Orchestra; Josefsberg with leaders like guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and saxist Joe Lovano; and Ruddick with Parker and drummer Lou Grassi. But no profound statements are made.

Encompassing a couple of finger-snappers and a slinky tango, the group sounds like a hipper version of one of pianist George Shearing’s groups. The saxist does get to showcase a breathy Ben Webster-like tone, the bassist to drive forward the tunes with low-register double stops and the pianist to show a versatility that has him showcasing near-ragtime then quasi-baroque on subsequent tracks. Despite some blues references throughout, the sum total of the tunes is much closer to flowery pop jazz than anything else.

Featuring Johnston on soprano saxophone and a shifting personnel, the other suites are even more diffident. Divided into 11 parts, “Minor Repairs Necessary” ranges from some of the most memorable to some of the least impressive themes — jazz-wise at least. That stigma is reserved for “Birds”, which is no more than a tinkling, solo intermezzo for pianist Nurit Tilles. Filled with classical echoes, hearing it brings out images of dancers strutting across the stage.

Much more impressive is “Whodunit”, featuring Johnston, Josefsberg, pianist Jonathan Dryden and bassist Lindsey Horner. Cartoon-like, with echoes of Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Elington’s Jungle band, it features a whizzing soprano sax line, faux-primitive piano licks, ringing vibe resonation — that plays call-and-response with the sax — and a healthy bass line holding it together.

Also interesting are “Cliffs” and “Knight”. Driven by a rickety-tic sax and pumping piano, the first is a tango mixed with Klezmer references and quotes from “Anchors Away”, “Auld Lange Song” and “Over There.” The later finds the saxophone and piano in perfect counterpoint moving from adagio to allegro with high frequency dynamics.

Unfortunately between the ringing, slinky vibes tones, legato and unaccented reed work and a back beat from almost parlor-style piano, the bassist can be hardly heard. Considering Horner provided the rhythmic pulse for pianist Myra Melford’s original trio and reedist Michael Moore’s Jewels and Binoculars project that’s a major oversight.

Horner does get the occasional walking bass interjection on the almost 16-minute title track, but Will Holshouser’s accordion takes up a lot more of the aural space with a Balkan-circus time blend that characterizes the composition. Holshouser, who recorded a more jazz-oriented CD with drummer Kevin Norton, uses his squeezebox for jolly syncopation throughout. A dramatic slurred pizzicato run from the bassist at points meets slurred lines from the keys and bellows.

Mostly though, Johnston, Horner and Holshouser plus drummer Barbara Merjan fight none too successfully against that blend’s association with ethnic wedding music. At points they produce Dixieland two beats as well as vamps à la Benny Goodman’s quartet that could keep dancers — literally — on their toes. Finally, a unison glissando from the soprano sax and accordion presages a recapitulation of the theme, with the last few bars missing in order to provide an unexpected surprise.

Useful mostly as a reminder that there is composerly life beyond downtown New York, RUB ME THE WRONG WAY rarely rises above its designated use as dance accompaniment.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: || Minor Repairs Necessary: 1. Whodunit 2. Jitter Duel 3. Crash 4. Mermaids 5. Float 6. Cliffs 7. Knight 8. Family 9. Birds 10. Comfort 11. Nightmare 12. Rub Me The Wrong Way || The Further Adventures of Slap and Tickle: 13. Slap 14. Ta Da 15. Tango 16. Windmill 17. Tickle

Personnel: Phillip Johnston (soprano [tracks 1-8, 10-12] or tenor [tracks 13-17] saxophones); Mark Josefsberg [tracks 1-8, 10, 11; 13-17] (vibraphone); Joe Ruddick [tracks 1-8; 10, 11] or Jonathan Dryden [tracks 13-17] or Nurit Tilles [track 9] (piano); Will Holshouser [track 12] (accordion); Lindsey Horner [tracks 1-8, 10-12]or David Hofstra [tracks 13-17] (bass); Barbara Merjan [tracks 12] (drums)