Wednesday, March 20, 2019

CD Review: Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators - Diggin' Bones/ Phillip Johnston - The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators
Diggin' Bones

Phillip Johnston
The Adventures of Prince Achmed


My dad once quipped that B3 organ players put a lot of bassists out of work. A bass player himself, Pop was known for exaggerating a little bit with his stories but there was a slight element of truth there. With all those organists playing with strong left feet, they had the low end in the pocket.

Conversely, if an organ player employs a living bassist, the session in question might generates some skepticism. It makes you wonder if the organist is capable enough. Or, as one piece of lore goes, if someone doesn't trust the organist. One Pittsburgh musician talked about how skillfully Shirley Scott's leg bounced around the pedals, but that many of her albums nevertheless featured bassists. When he asked her, she it all came down to the producer insisting that the low end on Scott's recordings shouldn't be left to left foot.

Diggin' Bones, the first release by saxophonist Phillip Johnston's Australia-based group the Coolerators, finds the Microscopic Sextet figurehead leading a group that includes both an organist and bassist. But before any eyebrows go up in suspicion, there are a few things to consider. The man at the bass isn't your average four-to-the-bar joe. He's Lloyd Swanton, of Down Under's long lasting improvisation trio the Necks. A few bars into the title track and it's clear why Johnston has Swanton on the session: the bass line is not a walking line that's easy to play along with some organ chords. It moves with the alto saxophone's jumpy melody. This is not a typical horn and organ trio session.

Johnston switches between alto and soprano saxophones throughout Diggin' Bones. He specializes in catchy lines that latch onto the brain. Sometimes they come with a whimsical air, like "Frankly" which seems like it's going to break into "42nd Street" as it resolves. (This line also reappears during the other disc.) "Later" begins with a stop-start soprano line before morphing something that sounds more like legato tango. This then leads to a rubato organ breakdown, a drop-tuned bass solo and a final statement from drummer Nic Cecire. Swanton also gets some room to stretch out over some organ drones in the ska-flavored "The Revenant."

Klezmer influence shows up in some of Johnston's writing on Diggin' Bones. He's always catchy and exudes a feeling of good times. But sometimes the songs rely a bit too much on melody repetition at the expense of time that could have be spent stretching out.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed consists of music Johnston composed for the 1926 silent film of the same name, the first full-length silhouette animated film, which was created by Charlotte "Lotte" Reiniger. In addition to the composer's soprano sax, this group forgoes a bassist in favor of trombone (James Greening), two keyboardists (Alister Spence and Casey Golden) and drums (Cecire). Based on the One Thousand and One Nights collection of Middle Eastern folk tales,  the work was written as a continuous 65-minute work that, for this CD, has been banded into 12 tracks.

The blend of trombone and soprano sax immediately makes a good sonic pairing for the music, giving it an exotic blend even as they play Western-based melodies. Considering the age of the film, the voices used on the keyboards push it towards the other end of the 20th century, or maybe into the millennium. They don't sound slick but the turntable scratching noise and the occasional dirty synth groove puts modern technology at the forefront.

In a dark theater, the blend of ancient cinema techniques and modern composition must surely add to the suspense of the story. (The plot does not appear on the cover but the track titles hint at magicians, a kidnapping, witches, Aladdin's magic lamp and a battle.) Without the visuals to carry it as an album, the music varies. Johnston always keeps things moving, sometimes changing textures every few measures.  Yet, his frequent use of Philip Glass-like arpeggios or having the horns repeat one note in rhythmic variations gets to be a bit much. Often times something breaks through the repetition, like Greening mimicking a police car siren on his horn. But there were many instances where seeing the on-screen drama could have carried the music a little further.

No comments: