Over the course of my career I and my music have generally been treated well by the press. My major complaint has not been bad reviews, but rather situations in which I have been interviewed and the reviewers then paraphrased what I said, shaped by their own prejudices, and then put quotation marks around it. I generally agree with Art Blakey who said, “I don’t care what they say, as long as they spell my name right!” I believe that a vital and vigorous critical community is essential to any art form, and it goes with out saying that not everyone is going to love what you do. When it gets harder is when it interferes with your livelihood, which is more true in the case of the theater than music. However, it is impossible to avoid occasionally being on the receiving end of the disdain of the critical pen.
I’d like to begin with one of my favorite bad reviews, one which bristles with so much hostility from the very first sentence that it reads almost like a parody of a bad review.
All About Jazz – New York Jan 2007 – Microscopic Septet
“The Microscopic Septet’s founder Phillip Johnston frequently posits that the band’s music, much of which was penned by him, is “avant garde”. It can be quirky, is often fun to hear and it just manages to swing, but it is anything but groundbreaking.
The Micros’ music is a frantic hodgepodge of styles cleverly entwined into facile arrangements, overlaid with a big band jazz sound and intellectually dressed up with geekily funny titles. It is lighthearted and lightweight and it can be mildly exhilarating in the same way that a good They Might Be Giants tune can be. It’s got the kind of adolescent smarts that tries to hide its earnestness under a thin veneer of hipness.
The Micros, however, are now far from young. Their music, nothing to be taken too seriously when it was created (in the mid ‘80s and in the ‘90s), has a goofiness that may appeal to those who feel jazz tends to be too gravely self-important. The Micros are, inevitably, sometimes compared to the great Willem Breuker Kollektief, but this is unfair to the latter, who have been around much, much longer, plainly possess a greater degree of gravitas (underneath the wild playfulness) and put on better live shows to boot.
Speaking of live shows, the Micros delivered at a packed Joe’s Pub in early December. The shows were in support of these two double CD sets, which purport to contain the band’s entire recorded output. Live, the Micros belt out the tunes with reliable tightness and made-for-NPR stage banter, but the rhythm section lacks power and Johnston’s soprano sound seeped limply out of the bell. Don Davis’ alto solos delivered some needed heat and Dave Sewelson’s baritone solos were fiery, creative highlights. The crowd seemed happy, as only crowds who’ve been spared anything heavy or ‘avant garde’ can be.”
Comment: Interestingly, this reviewer came up to me after the show, and told me that he was a long time fan and said how much he had enjoyed the show, and let me know that he was going to do a review. I’m still puzzled as to why he did that, given the content of the review. In addition, this is not going to be a place where I rebut reviews, but I don’t remember ever saying that the music of the Microscopic Septet is in any way “avant garde’– something I’m accused in the review of ‘frequently positing’. I don’t see anything ‘avant garde’ about it, and can’t imagine ever saying that, though anything is possible.
Jazz Times – Feb 1998 – Normalology (CD)
“Johnston defies the formulaic, just barely, with numbers that are credibly cutesy and cleverly cogent, in the Raymond Scott tradition… Amusingly or maddeningly, Johnston’s tongue seems firmly planted in his cheek…”
Jazz Times – March 1998– The Unknown (CD)
“…this is not a disc one would necessarily make return trips to for sustenance…”
Boston Globe October 1993 – The Unknown (live performance)
“…Speaking of sound, this silent is accompanied by Phillip Johnson [sic] leading his new band in new music he wrote. Sometimes it can be too much of a not-so-good thing. The music, to be blunt, is intrusive. It may not be ego-tripping, like Ennio Morricone’s abominable music for “Metropolis” a few years ago. It may just be the result of an overconscientious responsiveness. But these mostly powerful images don’t need a lot of sonic help. They certainly don’t need a blaring sonic layer of clamor when Chaney’s agonized eyes express all the clamor the theater needs. Live musical accompaniments to restored silents defeat the purpose when they become, in effect, concerts accompanied by images. The music should stay incidental, not overwhelm the film. The film, not the music, should be the event.”
[Comment: this writer had not actually seen our performance, he had only watched a poorly recorded demo VHS tape. In addition, I think he has mistaken the score for Metropolis, which he attributes to Ennio Morricone, for the one by Georgio Moroder, an odd substitution, other than their surnames beginning with the same letter. However, a score for Metropolis by Morricone would indeed be something to hear, so I will forgive wishful thinking getting the best of him.]
New York Times – July 1, 1989 – The Microscopic Septet at the JVC Jazz Festival
“The Microscopic Septet opened the show. A mock big band, it’s cloying, cute arrangements melted into a morass of out-of-tune playing and routines that tried vainly imagine the past as kitsch. Humor works if the musicianship is competent; deadly and unswinging, the band’s rhythmic flaccidity, when mixed with the room’s flashing acoustics, added up to noise but no energy.”
The Wire – June 1986 – Microscopic Septet LP Let’s Flip!
“…The four-sax front line weaves through some interesting arrangements… but never manage to sound as though there are any ideas behind the noise. The marching-band effect of massed saxes never quite comes off and the rhythm section lends only rather unsteady, if vigorous support…. …But then I’d just read the liner note [by playwright/director & MacArthur ‘Genius’ Fellow Richard Foreman], which must rank as one of the stupidest ever put on the outside of a record.”
On a fancy White House dinner he attended:
“It was hard to have a conversation with anyone, there were so many people talking.”
– Yogi Berra