Joel Forrester/Phillip Johnston Duo
Joel Forrester - piano
Phillip Johnston - sax
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 for the past 35 years they have always continued to play as a duo.
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 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.”
One of the most active saxophonists and composers (theatre, dance, film scores, and jazz & New 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.
His most recent projects are his new score for Lotte Reineger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed (1926), and Wordless!, his collaboration with graphic artist Art Spiegelman, which will be performed at Cal Performances at UC Berkeley in October. 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 2011, Joel Forrester and Phillip Johnston released Joel Forrester and Phillip Johnston: Live at the Hillside Club, recorded at a performance in Berkeley, CA. Jazz Times called it “a masterpiece of intimacy, energy and synergy”. The Microscopic Septet will release Manhattan Moonrise, their new CD on Cuneiform Records, in May 2014.