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13

Phillip Johnston Returns with Diggin' Bones and The Adventures of Prince Achmed

John Kelman By

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The consequences of change in the music industry have been predicted for some time now but, with far too many blinkered deniers, it's had to begin approaching critical mass before being recognized for what it is: the commoditization and devaluation of music that has led to increasing challenges for musicians looking to maintain any kind of reasonable living. Sure, there are the bigger names who continue to thrive, and it's easy to point to the absurd volume of music being released each and every week as proof that the very existence of music and those who make it are in no way being threatened. Still, just talk to most musicians and you'll hear that recordings that once provided a reasonable component of their income are now little more than business cards, and motivators, at best, to get audiences to attend live performances.

But it's far worse than that. The cost of touring is now so expensive that many artists struggle to maintain their income from even that source. Labels are either largely closing down, like Abstract Logix, or going on general hiatus and releasing a mere fraction of what they once did, like the adventurous and decades-old Cuneiform Records. Online shops are closing their virtual doors, like ReR USA. Streaming services like Spotify offer budget-friendly, "all you can eat" musical buffets that are a boon for the consumer but result in "compensation" to most artists that is a tiny fraction of what they used to get for album sales (whether hard or soft media). Worse, people who post not just free songs but entire albums without permission on social media platforms like Facebook and "great on paper but not so good in reality" sites like YouTube have further eaten, very significantly, into how musicians get recompense for their hard work.

Sure, the cost of pressing a thousand CDs is now so reasonable that almost anyone can release an album. And with DIY home studios and file sharing becoming the norm, the days when bands recorded with experienced engineers and producers—often laying down an album's basic tracks "live off the floor," together in the same room of a proper studio, which also allows them to capture both energy and in-the-moment spontaneity only possible by playing together, is now becoming increasingly less common. And if artists do record in proper studios, the cost of doing so is so exorbitant that the amount of time they can spend in those studios has been severely curtailed.

Yes, live releases (whether soundboard recordings or proper multitracks) are both cost-effective and, if the group is best experienced in concert, a viable alternative. But the days of recording studios being almost another member of any group, couple with the invaluable contributions of engineers and the objective perspective of a good producer, have become largely a thing of the past.

The reasons why we have arrived in this spot are complex and barely touched upon here, but there's little doubt that, beginning with the advent of peer-to-peer file sharing in the '90s (most notably Napster) have created generations of music fans either growing up to or no longer believing in the idea that those who make the music they profess to love deserve to actually get paid for it. As ever, technological innovations are a double-edged sword; tremendous in their infinite possibilities... but equally dangerous in their potential for abuse.

The naysayers' common response to these worsening conditions—tough enough on younger musicians, but brutal on aging ones who must now tour far more frequently each year in order to simply carve out something resembling the livings that they could prior to the new millennium—is that "music will find a way." And, indeed, musicians faced with the harsh reality of their labels reducing their output or shuttering up completely have forced them to find other ways to get their music out... if at all. That a major jazz artist like guitarist Pat Metheny has not released a studio album since 2014, yet now has a full five albums recorded but, thanks to the current landscape, no plans to actually release them speaks volumes.

Still, the "music will find a way" adage isn't completely without merit, especially for middle tier musicians. Many have enough of a following to justify finding another small label interested in releasing their work (or starting their own), without the expectation of selling huge numbers but with the not unreasonable objective of, at the very least, documenting musical progress while, hopefully, recouping the actual cost of making them and, maybe even, reaping a small profit.

Take Phillip Johnston—he of, amongst many other projects, the 1930s/40s-inspired but utterly modern "little big band" Microscopic Septet and Captain Beefheart tribute group Fast 'n' Bulbous. The American saxophonist, living in Sydney, Australia since 2005 but still spending time, each year, in his decades-long home of New York City and touring in North America, represents the epitome of a musician who survives through diversity.

In Johnston's case this means maintaining multiple group projects capable of touring, work as a scorer for film and theatre, and multi-media events like Wordless!, his 2013 collaboration with graphic artist Art Speigelman. That acclaimed project, first presented in Sydney in 2013, went on, after premiering in North America early the following year, to a nine-city North American tour and continues to be performed to this day (by the saxophonist and his Silent Six band), in locations including London, England and Paris, France. Johnston has also published numerous articles on silent films, presented conference papers on the subject and contributed to books, including a chapter in the upcoming When Jazz meets Cinema (Turnhout, Belgium: Brepols, 2019).

With Cuneiform releasing Microscopic Septet's last album almost two years ago (the aptly-titled and inspired reflecting on the times in which the group exists, Been Down So Long It Looks Like Up to Me: The Micros Play the Blues), the label's drastic cutback on releases has directly impacted Johnston, now in his early-to-mid-sixties. Largely absent beyond the still-vibrant Sydney scene and regular US tour dates, fans who've missed his recorded work finally have something to celebrate: not one, but two releases on the saxophonist/composer's newly created independent label, Asynchronous Records: Diggin' Bones, a captivating date featuring his Sydney-based band The Coolerators; and The Adventures of Prince Achmed, Johnston's soundtrack to the very first feature-length animated film of the same name, directed by Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch and released in 1926.

There's crossover in the two albums' Australian lineups. Alongside Johnston, who plays both alto and soprano saxophones with The Coolerators but soprano alone on the Prince Achmed score, both albums feature acclaimed keyboardist Alister Spence and in-demand drummer Nic Cecire. Diggin' Bones is also anchored, on the bottom end, by Australian bassist Lloyd Swanton, best-known for his work with the experimental improvising trio The Necks, now in its 32nd year and with over twenty release to date. The Adventures of Prince Achmed, on the other hand, is a slightly larger, bass-less project, with Johnston, Spence and Cecire joined by long-standing Australian trombonist James Greening and, the relative youngster of the bunch (but with an already impressive resume), keyboardist Casey Golden.

Two very different but equally impressive albums, released in the fall of 2018: one, a hard-grooving quartet session that feels like an even looser, funk-and swing-heavy, horn-driven extension of Medeski, Martin & Wood's decades-long innovations, with strong emphasis on group chemistry, on Spence's swirling organ work and Johnston's swinging and identifiably smooth tone on both alto and soprano; the other, a more atmospheric, occasionally hard-edged yet utterly charming film score that is more texturally and stylistically diverse.

Phillip Johnston & The Coolerators
Diggin' Bones
Asynchronous Records
2018

Johnston and Swanton may be the Coolerators' better known entities, at least to those following the more left of center (and international) jazz scene, but Alister Spence has been gaining increased attention beyond his native Australia. In addition to his own piano trio (also featuring Swanton), heard most recently on Not Everything But Enough (Alister Spence Music, 2017), he's garnered recognition from higher profile musicians, including two other pianists with whom he has also collaborated, Myra Melford and Satoko Fujii, found on two additional Spence-released titles, 2014's Everything Here is Possible and 2018's Intelsat, respectively.

Both Spence and Swanton are clearly players capable of fitting into a multitude of contexts, but their individual and collective performances on Diggin' Bones position them as not just mighty groove-meisters, but ones capable of taking that reductionist definition and expanding it to include plenty of movement to both its left and right, imbuing the music with all the soul, swing and funk that Johnston's writing requires, but with the same kind of freewheeling interaction and loose, unfettered improvisational panache that renders Diggin' Bones not just a captivating listen, but one that continues to reveal more with each and every spin.

As can also be said of Nic Cecire. Best known as an in-demand drummer on the Sydney scene, his work here (and on The Adventures of Prince Achmed) ought to bring him some additional, well-deserved international attention. Not only does he groove with authority on tracks like the loosely swinging, riff-driven "What is Real?"; he also proves capable of more open-ended freedom on "Later," which revolves around a repetitive, dervish-like figure that ends with a decelerating tempo and a pause, before revving up again...and again.

"Later" also provides some totally open space for a remarkable a cappella organ solo from Spence that's as much an exercise in color and texture as it is harmonic conception and melodic invention. The eight minute track also includes room for a bass solo from Swanton that will come as no surprise to fans of the Necks, though his extended techniques, which include holding down a pedal tone as he executes a number of pull-offs and hammer-ons, make his brief solo sound more like two bassists than one.

Cecire's solo may be temporally open, but is imbued with the kind of melodic attention of drummers like Bill Stewart while, at the same time, demonstrating both virtuosity and attention to the value of space. Johnston is the only player, in fact, who doesn't take an a cappella solo on "Later" but, after each of his band mates' features, he does solo over a Middle Eastern-tinged figure that, bolstered by Spence's dense colors and Swanton and Cecire's unshakable pulse, finds the saxophonist delivering one of his most impressive solos of the set that is quirky and idiosyncratic, as he moves effortlessly from lower registers to soft-toned but still potent altissimo.

Johnston's writing for Diggin' Bones is clearly designed for group interplay and as a context setter for collective and individual improvisation, but he nevertheless covers a lot of territory, from the near-song form of the lyrical "The Revenant," which includes a suitably melodic solo from Swanton, to the title track, which is even more Middle Eastern-inflected than "Later." "Frankly," with its idiosyncratic stop/start theme and booty-shaking groove, is a great set-opener that's the closest to Medeski, Martin & Wood (especially with Spence's gritty Hammond and Cecire's sloppy, fall-off-the-chair, behind-the-best pulse) while, at the same time positioning the Coolerators as a quartet with a similarly expansive yet completely different purview. Modality is also a relative constant throughout the set, but in particular on "Frankly," where Spence's fourths-driven chordal support keeps things harmonically ambiguous enough to allow all the freedom his band mates need, while a B section almost approaches progressive territory without actually getting there.

What helps define Diggin' Bones, beyond Johnston's writing, is Spence's organ work, which is closer to Larry Young, Dan Wall and Gary Versace than Jimmy Smith or Dr. Lonnie Smith but remains as distinctive in its own right as Kit Downes, when the British pianist moves over to the Hammond. At the same time, like Downes and other contemporary touchstones, Spence's work is still imbued with plenty of soul, albeit of a more 21st century variety. "Regrets #17" is a good example, with Spence and Johnston moving from unison lines to contrapuntal figures, all while Swanton and Cecire remain aligned with the pulse—but in the most open way possible.

The quartet even ends Diggin' Bones with a shuffle-meets-New Orleans Second Line, as Spence swirls around Johnston's harmonically shifting two-note figures. Likely the set's most complicated chart, with all kinds of orbiting and intersecting lines, driven by Cecire's unfettered shuffle and Swanton's at-times anchored, at other times almost unhinged support. Like much of Diggin' Bones, this is music where individual solos do emerge, but the fundamental modus operandus is more about a collectively interpretive approach that, even in its adherence to Johnston's at-times knotty scores, is performed with such reckless abandon as to suggest that no two performances of any of Diggin' Bones' ten tracks will ever be remotely the same.

And that, in a nutshell, is Diggin' Bones' most compelling magic.

Phillip Johnston
The Adventures of Prince Achmed
Asynchronous Records
2018

Writing for film (or theatre, or television, for that matter) is an entirely different proposition than composing for an improvising band, though the two need not be completely without intersection. Johnston's score to directors Lotte Reiniger and Carl Koch's 1926 film The Adventures of Prince Achmed (the first known full-length animated feature) may be even more rewarding when heard in conjunction to watching the film, which follows the handsome titular prince's magical adventures, traveling on a flying horse and meeting everyone/everything from a witch and demons to Aladdin and a princess. But seeing this animated film, whose stories were culled from The Arabian Nights (the English translation of Middle Eastern folk tales, compiled in Arabic during the Islamic Golden Age and known as One Thousand and One Nights), is far from absolutely necessary.

With Alister Spence and Nic Cecire back from Diggin' Bones (or, to be more accurate, the other way around since the saxophonist's score was recorded in the fall of 2013, four years prior to Johnston laying down the tracks for his Coolerators set), The Adventures of Prince Achmed employs a slightly larger group, with the addition of a second keyboardist, Casey Golden and trombonist James Greening. There's no bassist this time but, with both Spence and Golden credited as playing organ and keyboards, the textural possibilities are far greater, even if it's not necessarily possible for those less familiar with the two keyboardists to know who is doing what at any given time.

For example, the nearly nine-minute, structured but also improvisation-ready "Prince Achmed" includes both impressive organ and trombone solos towards the end of its nearly nine-minute duration, following an atmospheric intro that also features some vocal-inflected musings from Greening and either multitracked or electronically doubled soprano saxophone lines that gradually emerge and wind in and around the trombonist. A thematic form begins to emerge around the three-minute mark, leading to a groove-heavy section driven hard by Cecire that would fit just as comfortably on Diggin' Bones, leading to the organ solo, bracketed by two solos from Greening and revolving around a relatively simple set of changes and a reiteration of the theme anchored by staccato pushes from Cecire and one of the keyboardists.

Most surprising about The Adventures of Prince Achmed is that, despite its subject matter, Johnston largely eschews any of the Middle Eastern harmonies that imbued two of Diggin' Bones' ten tracks, with occasional exceptions including the middle section of "The African Magician." Still, just the titles of some of Johnston's dozen compositions are all that's needed to suggest some of the narrative, which he supports with a score that, running for roughly 66 minutes, is, indeed, a complete score to a film that runs the same length of time.

There are consistent themes that run through the score, which explores Gamelan-like tuned percussion, and knotty explorations of both complex counterpoint and irregular meters. Still, much of The Adventures of Prince Achmed still propels along mightily, thanks to Cecire's reputation as a potent groove-meister who is also known for his role as "Tom Tom" in the Sydney-based children's group Lah-Lah, with whom he has recorded albums and television content alongside regular live performances, including a run of 24 sold-out shows at the internationally renowned Sydney Opera House in 2010, as part of its annual Babies Proms season.

Electronic percussion also complements acoustic instrumentation on tracks like "Pari Banu Kidnapped," another lengthy score that runs the gamut from ethereal keyboards and angular soprano saxophone melodies to a mid-piece passage in 5/4, driven by organ and lighter drum work, bolstering a unison theme from Johnston and Greening that leads to another section where organ and electronic percussion set the context for Johnston and Greening. This challenging chart ultimately unfolds an even more abstract yet rhythmically driven passage where heavily processed organ supports a solo from Johnston that suddenly shifts to a minimalist-inspired series of trombone and saxophone lines that, with full-bodied organ support and Cecire alternating between high hat-heavy percussion and more powerful, full-kit grooves, sounds like something that could have emerged from early '70s Soft Machine, were it a band focused more heavily on groove—and were some of the electronics and processing employed by Johnston and his group more readily available.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed is, in fact, a score with a certain amount of progressive rock tendencies, albeit more in keeping with the improv-heavy angularity of Soft Machine's freer period, aspects of Rock in Opposition groups like Henry Cow, and, at times, fellow Canterburians Egg. Still, formal progressive rock this most definitely is not, as the information/context-rich "Take Me to Wak Wak!" certainly demonstrates, with its blend of angular thematics and an organ part that, at times, alludes to Procol Harum's mega-hit "A Whiter Shade of Pale" while, at other times, approaching a swinging, faux-lounge vibe.

Still, despite its greater allegiance to compositional constructs, ranging from atmospheric to knottily idiosyncratic, and as much as improvisation plays a role in Johnston's score, The Adventures of Prince Achmed's more formal approach to writing, alongside broader textures and greater complexities, will appeal more decidedly to the progressive rock community than the more blow-driven Diggin' Bones—two utterly different albums from Phillip Johnston that will be an even greater surprise to those who know the saxophonist/composer best for his work with Microscopic Septet or Fast 'n' Bulbous.

Which really means: any attempts to pigeon-hole Johnston are an exercise in futility. On the strength of just Microscopic Septet, Fast 'n' Bulbous and, now, the improv-centric Diggin' Bones and his more composed (but still open) score to The Adventures of Prince Achmed, it's clear that Johnston's musical predilections run far and wide. Which also means: irrespective of the direction(s) he heads to next, it will be well worth keeping a watchful eye out for anything that Johnston pursues.

Tracks and Personnel

Diggin' Bones (with The Coolerators)

Tracks: Frankly; What is Real?; Diggin' Bones; Temporary Blindness; Later; The Revenant; Legs Yet; Trial By Error; Regrets #17; Ducket Got a Whole In It.

Personnel: Phillip Johnston: soprano and alto saxophones; Alister Spence: organ; Lloyd Swanton: bass; Nic Cecire: drums.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed

Tracks: Prelude; The African Magician; Prince Achmed; Pari Banu Kidnapped; Adventures in China; The Witch & The Wedding; Take Me to Wak-Wak!; The Magic Lamp; Aladdin's Tale; The Witch vs The Magician; The Battle of the Spirits; Return to the Land of the Mortals.

Personnel: Phillip Johnston: soprano saxophone; James Greening: trombone; Alister Spence: organ, keyboards; Casey Golden: organ, keyboards; Nic Cecire: drums.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of Phillip Johnston

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