Page One

a column by
Bill Shoemaker

Paul Motian was fond of quipping that, back in the day, he would walk a few blocks to play a gig that lasted for weeks; decades later, he flew to Europe to play a single set. Composer and saxophonist Phillip Johnston took this trend to another level. While some musicians are bi-coastal, and others are bi-continental, Johnston is bi-hemispheric, having moved his family to Sydney, Australia in 2005.

Consequently, Johnston, who has spent much of his time teaching and earning a PhD as well as diving headlong into the lively Sydney scene, has had a relatively low profile in the US: a few annual holiday gigs with The Microscopic Septet and The Silent Six; a smattering of recordings, mainly with The Micros; and touring Wordless!, his multi-media theater collaboration with Maus creator, Art Spiegelman. Almost immediately upon his arrival in Australia, Johnston became an impact player, fronting several ensembles that stand shoulder to shoulder with the best anywhere, begging the question of why, on this digitally shrunken planet, the bulk of Johnston’s recent music has rarely blipped on the American media’s radar.

Any answer necessarily entails the conundrum of Australian jazz and improvised music’s struggles to gain parity and to integrate with their counterparts in the northern hemisphere. It is one thing to chalk up the paucity of international acclamation that Bernie McGann was one of the most formidable late-century alto saxophonists to geography. It is another to explain the ongoing need of musicians down under to migrate, that the forces that compelled Mike Nock to sojourn to the US in the early ‘60s are basically the same that draw The Necks’ Chris Abrahams and Tony Buck, among others, to Berlin.

The issue is not infrastructure – Australia has its fair share of funding schemes, non-profits, academia, print and broadcast media; if anything, it seems sufficient to keep many musicians home – but proximity to the most dynamic music communities in the north. Gaining access to these requires spadework, developing partnerships with musicians in Europe and North America, repeatedly shoving recordings under the noses of the press, and writing grant proposals to promote two-way traffic. In short, what everyone with international aspirations does.

Simply by pursuing his own music, Johnston is a validating, ambassadorial integer in the equation. Two recent recordings with prominent Aussies on his Asynchronous imprint – which to date has issued ‘90s silent film scores with his Transparent Quartet and a duo disc with Micros co-founder Joel Forrester – may change the calculus. Both Diggin’ Bones by The Coolerators, a quartet that retools organ jazz, and Johnston’s keyboards-rich score for Lotte Reiniger’s 1926 film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed, are among the more noteworthy releases of the year.

More significantly, The Coolerators include two hub-like figures in the evolution of Australian jazz and improvised music during the past three decades: keyboardist Alister Spence and bassist Lloyd Swanton. Swanton provides a through line from the hard-boiled post-bop of McGann’s classic trio to the abstractive post-jazz of The Necks. His trajectory first intersected Spence’s – and saxophonist Sandy Evans’ – in Clarion Fracture Zone in the ‘90s. Both Evans and trombonist James Greening (who is heard on Johnston’s sound track) play in Swanton’s long-standing The catholics (his use of a lower-case “c” is pointed); Evans works with Johnston in SNAP saxophone quartet. Now, for over a decade, Swanton – and CFZ drummer Toby Hall – have played in Spence’s trio, renowned for its brightly colored large-canvas works. Like members of The Necks, Spence has also developed an impressive international network of collaborators, including Myra Melford and saxophonist Raymond MacDonald.

Despite the avantish tilt of their résumés, Spence and Swanton cook on Diggin’ Bones. They have a lot to work with; Johnston writes as pointedly as he does for The Micros and other venues, his wit slippery with a few drops of vinegar. Spence is spot on mediating Johnston’s desired balance between old-school organ combos and off-center modernism, as well as the occasional tangent pointing towards Memphis or the Middle East. Spence generally uses a relatively straight-up sound, though he occasionally cranks up the Leslie gurgle at a few points where trippy ambiance is indicated. He steadfastly avoids both the corny flourishes often employed in organ jazz before the emergence of Larry Young, and the rote cyclic lines that too often is forwarded as the gist of Young’s legacy. Instead, Spence works straightforward, ear-grabbing phrases through tension-and-release solos to satisfying ends.

There is a dilemma for most bassists in organ groups; they have to punch above their weight to compete with organ pedals in providing a bottom, and they have to muscle their way into the foreground, sacrificing, to a degree, agility and finesse. Swanton bides his time, undergirding the quartet with ease and economy; his fills have the qualities of good quips, their off-the-cuff airs concealing carefully considered formulations. When the band steps away for Swanton’s solos, he commands attention not with gymnastics, but with directness. Swanton and drummer Nic Cecire make a constantly uplifting tandem, attuned to Johnston’s pith and joviality.

Despite Spence, Swanton and Cecire’s simmer, Johnston plays it rather cool throughout the proceedings. Johnston’’s soprano sound resembles Steve Lacy’s in the ‘90s, when the astringencies of the ‘70s had been squeezed out and replaced with a fuller, warmer envelopment, while his alto approaches Paul Desmond’s idealized martini dryness – nobody will mistake him for Lou Donaldson. Johnston’s playing buttresses the conceptual distance from the genre he stakes out compositionally, particularly with several pieces recycled from his work in grease-free settings with Guy Klusevsek and The Transparent Quartet. What brings them into the ballpark of 21st Century organ jazz is the band’s conviviality, which is contagious.

Generally, in the 90 years since the advent of sound,film scores set scenes, thumbnail characters, and foreshadow hot spots in the narrative; but are, far more often than not, necessarily fragmentary. Music has a different role in silent films, providing continuous context and commentary, the latter as simple as an exclamatory organ chord. Johnston’s prior scores for films by directors as diverse as Georges Méliés and Teinosuke Kinugasa are brimming with passages exuding everything from delightful whimsy to lurking evil. They also stand on their own as freestanding works.

Currently considered to be the oldest surviving animated feature-length film, The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a great fit for Johnston. Appropriated from One Thousand and One Nights, the story is laced with fantastic elements, which are emphasized through Reiniger’s original approach to silhouette animation, which shot cardboard figures and scenic elements with a rostrum camera setup entailing a scaffold. Although the results are comparable to those of Wayang puppet shows in terms of atmosphere, the frame-by-frame movements are far more finely calibrated. Additionally, there is a surprising level of abstraction, beginning with the introductions of the characters and in the initial conjurations of the magician, where the morphing shapes and bleeding colors – the film is hand-tinted – presage ‘60s experimental films and light shows.

Johnston’s strategic move in orchestrating the music is doubling up the keyboards, with Casey Golden teaming with Spence. During the course of the 65-minute score, Golden and Spence’s iridescent textures and intertwined lines evoke a wealth of unlikely associations – everyone from Morton Subotnick to Garth Hudson. There are also hard-grooving organ solos, presumably by Spence, efficiently fueled by Cecire. The choice of Greening is also inspired, as he brings the boisterousness that makes his work with The catholics so engaging, making him a strong foil for Johnston, (who forgoes the alto for this project), be it in jaunty two-beat passages or more exotic themes.

Johnston’s music plays very well with Reniger’s images; spinning the CD while watching the film on YouTube requires occasional latitude, but it’s more than close enough for jazz. More importantly, the music stands on its own, as do Johnston’s prior film projects. Now, if only Johnston could put The Adventures of Prince Achmed – and the Coolerators, for that matter – in front of American audiences. But, that would require a level of vision and will that seems to be in short supply among the current powers that be.

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