Reviewing music for film is like reviewing music for ballet, since the music is intended to be accompanied by action any reviewer is handicapped without the visual presentation. That being said, any good film or ballet music should be able to stand on its own. Such is the case with Phillip Johnston’s Page Of Madness. Intended to accompany Teinosuke Kinugasa's 1926 Japanese silent film Kurutta Ippeiji (A Page of Madness), the work was commissioned by the Film Society of Lincoln Center, and premiered at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theatre in 1998, performed by Phillip Johnston's Transparent Quartet.
Johnston, a saxophonist and composer, is perhaps unknown to many jazz aficionados, but his standing in the field is undisputed. As an underground or "Downtown" jazz musician he has released recordings on labels such as Black Saint, Koch and Innova, and has worked with musicians like John Zorn, Wayne Horvitz and Butch Morris. Johnston is a well respected scorer of both silent and sound films, and has been commissioned to write music for a large number of pieces to accompany dance and theatrical productions. He has also written music for advertisements - including Ford, Whirlpool and Blue Cross/Blue Shield - as well as for MTV, TNT and VH-1.
To many the music included on the disc will sound like 20th century classical compositions. As opposed to some of his more traditional music, here Johnston is working in his typical avant-garde manner. What distinguishes Johnston from many others working in either avant-garde idioms or free jazz contexts is the approachability of his music. One should not think of the music on this recording as "outside" any more than one might find Pierre Boulez’s compositions to be "outside;" both composers have their own individualistic mode of composing and the results, in both composers’ music, are firmly within the wider tradition of the music of today.
Johnston creates a great wealth of material by taking tonal concepts and layering them on top of each other. Using a core ensemble of saxophone, piano, vibes and bass, the results are sometimes poly-tonal, and at other times firmly tonal. The motivic material itself is generally controlled by the building of up of short phrases which when layered to create a cross-section of rather accessible music. At times Johnston saxophone is part of the bedrock, and at other times he floats dreamily above. This is not to imply that moments of true pointillistic free jazz don’t exist. In Johnston’s music those moments are always prepared and fit snuggly within the overall structure being created either within the individual tracks themselves or from one track to the next. To counterbalance the above there are moments when truly beautiful tonal songs break out and they too are the result of the above compositional process.
Describing individual tracks is pointless as the music moves seamlessly in its progression through the course of the disc. Overall this will not be easy music to play as one drives breezily through the countryside on a Sunday afternoon, but for those who are looking to explore jazz’s avant-garde, with an occasional nod to Third-Stream sentiments, this disc is a great place to start.