Best known as a co-founder of the irrepressibly cinematic Microscopic Septet, saxophonist Phillip Johnston has also unsurprisingly done a lot of film work in addition to a bunch of smaller-group projects over the years. He’s playing with the celluloid-oriented Silent Six tonight, Nov 27 at 7:30 PM at Smalls, although his latest project is with a smaller group, the darkly picturesque organ quartet the Coolerators.
Their new album, Diggin’ Bones, is streaming at Bandcamp. As the bandname indicates, the Thelonious Monk influence that informs so much of what Johnston has done throughout his career is front and center here. The tunes are a mix of older material rearranged for organ quartet plus some deliciously menacing new material which gives new meaning to the term “gutbucket organ music.”
The opening track, Frankly, sets the stage, a carnivalesque strut juxtaposing Alister Spence’s smoky, menacing organ against Johnston’s more lighthearted riffage, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Nic Cecire light on their feet. Further back in the mirror but just as present is a certain cover of Pictures at an Exhibition.
What Is Real?, a catchy number that dates back to the 80s, expands out of a syncopated Lou Donaldson-tinged soul-jazz tune, the bandleader sailing uneasily overhead. The title track blends elements of Monk, klezmer and latin noir, Spence raising the suspense with his blend of marionettish staccato and funereal swirl that loosens and lightens, Johnston’s biting modalisms bringing it full circle.
Temporary Blindness is a more latin-flavored take on the album’s opening track: the macabre duet between Spence’s stabbing organ and Swanton’s bowed riffage is one of the album’s high points. Later, which dates from Johnston’s days as a busker in San Francisco in the 70s, is an altered waltz with a surreal, enveloping blend of Monk, the Middle East and psychedelic rock. It’s the album’s most epic and strongest track out of many.
The lone cover is The Revenant, by 70s folk noir icon Michael Hurley, reinvented as a wistful, sparsely arranged shuffle groove with an aptly ghostly, tiptoeing Swanton solo. Legs Yet is the group at their slinkiest and most modally improvisational – and the most traditional, funky organ jazz tune here. Trial By Error – which Johnston had originally recorded with accordion wizard Guy Klucevsek – has a brisk, brightly pulsing klezmer influence fueled by Johnston’s acerbic yet balmy soprano sax attack.
Regrets #17, another number that dates from the 80s, works tight variations on a bluesy chromatic swing theme: here and throughout the album, Spence’s smoky ripples bring to mind the great expat New York organist Jordan Shapiro. The final cut, Ducket Got a Whole In It brings the album full circle with a creepy circus flair. This is arguably the best band Johnston has worked with outside of the Micros, and this album is one of the best and most tuneful of 2018.