Look out, Phillip Johnston is sneaking up on you

The other day, a friend posted a video on Facebook, of the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ hit (is this the right word? I’m not sure if we’re allowed to use the word ‘hit’ in this genre) ‘The Ghost of Stephen Foster’. It’s a great, fun song that demonstrates the band’s punk-swing attitude – and the video is deliciously vintage-looking.

Everytime I see it, it reminds me of one of my favourite cartoons, Bottles. I remember watching it as a kid and being utterly fascinated by its ambience; it’s playful, it’s morbid, it’s mysterious, it’s fun – pretty much like Phillip Johnston’s music.

So yes, ‘Bottles’ is the first thing that came to my mind when I listened to Diggin’ Bones,Phillip Johnston‘s latest output with his band The Coolerators, featuring a dream team of Sydney’s jazz masters – Alister Spence on organ, Lloyd Swanton on bass and Nic Cecire on drums, with Johnston himself playing soprano and alto saxophone.

Between the four of them there are decades of excellence and experience in probably all jazz styles – free, swing, bop, you name it – not to mention a flair for groove and and deep understanding of minimalism.

coolerators-sm.jpgThe prevailing sound, throughout the recording, is the growling of Alister Spence’s organ – creating an intricate sonic backdrop, along with the rhythmic dynamics of Swanton and Cecire. If the idea of an organ-driven combo evokes certain ideas in your mind, forget them. This is not your average, funky organ band – because Phillip Johnston’s music is not that kind of music. It is a blend of all the influences and sub-genres you may think of, delivered with irreverence and a sardonic sense of humor. What Spence does with Johnston’s compositions is turn them into a kind of sonic quicksand – it is dense, it is constantly shifting and it will absorb you. And if we have to take this metaphor to its limits, what Phillip Johnston does is throw sharp, melodic phrases to the listener – that is, the vines that you need to hold on to, in order to save yourself from the quicksand.

This is, of course, a cartoonish metaphor, but I’ve always thought thatPhillip Johnston’sapproach to jazz has a kind of cartoonish quality to it. His playing is sneaking up on you, surprising you and exploding like a cartoon dynamite. Other times, it’s like these pistols who, when fired, shoot out a flag that unfolds and writes ‘Bang!’


All this is perfectly demonstrated in the album’s opening track, ‘Frankly’, one of my favourite tunes of the recent crop, playing in heavy rotation on my phone’s mp3 player. It is a wildly cinematic tune that wobbles and shakes and surrounds you; a tune that begs for a director to shoot a stakeout scene, only to use it as a soundtrack.


Maybe I’m biased; maybe I’m influenced by Phillip Johnston’s longtime collaboration with Art Spiegelman, the artist who defined the graphic novel artform with his award winning Maus– and whose work is a combination of dry humour, pathos and deep insight on the human nature – pretty much like Philip Johnston’s work.

But the thing is that, to me, even his New York-based band, the Microscopic Septet– arguably one of the city’s best-kept jazz secrets – look to me like they were drawn by Gilbert Shelton and animated by Max Fleischer.

Prince.Achmed.cover.smSpeaking of vintage cartoons, there is one which bears Phillip Johnston’s signature on it – Lotte Reininger’sThe Adventures of Prince Achmed,a 1926 silent masterpiece, for which Philip Johnston wrote a score, and presented it live in 2015 at MOFO.

This work is also out now, and it comes as a great companion piece to Diggin’ Bones, featuring pretty much the same band – minus Swanton, and with the addition of Casey Golden as a second organist and the superb James Greening on trombone. The compositions are again haunting, twirling around musical ideas that seem to slowly develop as they go – and despite the fact that the film is based on one of the Arabian nights stories, and the score is full of ‘oriental’ scales and other elements, it never resorts to the exotic.

Other composers would easily and predictably fall into that kind of pothole. A cunning trickster like Phillip Johnston knows how to avoid them.

A screening of the film with this score as a soundtrack – performed live or not – is certainly in order and should be on top priority for all film clubs and institutions, at least in Australia, but for the time being we will have to make do with whatever gig Phillip Johnston has lined up.

Philip Johnston and the Coolerators are playing at Foundry 616 on Thursday 20 September.