The Unknown is saxophonist/composer Phillip Johnston's soundtrack to the 1927 silent film of the same name. As with much of Johnston's other work, the music here is a witty, often changing mix of sounds and styles from various eras. Appropriately, there is an emphasis on various film music archetypes, although not just from the silent film era, but from more modern times, too. The tracks weave in and out of frantic, polka-driven chase-scene themes, genteel waltzes, nostalgic parlor-room piano sections, sultry noir-jazz passages, and more. Johnston also adds in more modern elements, from dissonant horn harmonies and free-leaning improvisation to a few rock-oriented rhythms and even some electronic/synthesizer touches.
The second CD by Philip Johnston's Big Trouble is jazz mixing great musicianship with a touch of madness. He treats Steve Lacy's "Hemline" as if it were penned by Raymond Scott (whose music was adapted for classic Looney Tunes cartoons) and "Bone" sounds like a wild improvisation on a childhood chant. Pianist Joe Ruddick's "Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken" has a nifty calypso beat with an intense cacophony of reeds and brass. Johnston is also a gifted composer; his "Pontius Pilate Polka" blends folk dances with swinging Dixieland interludes. "Mr. Crocodile" is a light samba with a touch of reggae. Highly recommended for fans of the great melting pot of jazz.
Really, why should this music be called avant-garde? Should a band as gloriously fun as Phillip Johnston's Big Trouble really be given a stylistic label equated by many with either difficult art music or deadly serious free jazz? Yes, in the '90s jazz world, the enormously engaging saxophonist/composer and his band of accomplished musical pranksters definitely fell on the avant side of things, but that was more a reflection of the sorry state of the mainstream, in comparison to which, of course, any era's avant-garde is defined. In a rational world, Johnston's first post-Microscopic Septet project would be seen as appealing to a very broad audience segment – say, those with ears on the sides of their heads.
Leonard Hoffman is a Los Angeles insurance agent with a problem on his hands. He has teenage triplets who are all gifted musicians, but wife Arlene insists that the kids attend college at Yale, requiring more than $40,000 in tuition, rather than less expensive schools like nearby UCLA.