Phillip Johnston and Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators – The Adventures of Prince Achmed and Diggin’ Bones [TrackList follows] – Asynchronous 004 and 003, The Adventures of Prince Achmed: 65:25; Diggin’ Bones 58:56 [both 10/26/18] ****:

Saxophonist/composer Phillip Johnston is a busy musician. He splits his time between the US and Australia; leads or co-leads several groups such as the Microscopic Septet, the Captain Beefheart cover band Fast’N’Bulbous and the Phillip Johnston Quartet; and writes academic papers related to jazz and silent cinema. This year the multi-hyphenate artist released not one but two separate albums on the same day on the same label (Asynchronous): the 65-minute The Adventures of Prince Achmed and the hour-long Diggin’ Bones. Both CDs show various facets of Johnston’s compositional and performance talents. The Adventures of Prince Achmed represents a new soundtrack to the 1926 German animated fairytale film of the same name. Diggin’ Bones is the debut from Johnston’s new quartet the Coolerators.

Johnston is no stranger to producing modern soundtracks for classic early motion pictures. His previous projects include music for movies by Georges Méliès, Tod Browning, F.W. Murnau and others. The Adventures of Prince Achmed is a feature-length film by Lotte Reiniger which utilizes a unique silhouette animation style. It is the oldest surviving animated feature film. Johnston’s swirling, engaging and frequently cyclic score uses Johnston on soprano sax, James Greening’s trombone, Alister Spence and Casey Golden’s twinned keyboards and organ, Nic Cecire’s drums, plus recorded loops and samples. The 12 tracks heighten and accentuate Prince Achmed’s adventures with a flying horse; his battles with demons and monsters; magical duels involving a sorcerer and a witch; and Achmed’s romance with an exotic woman. Johnston’s themes regularly embody the personality of the movie’s characters. The almost eight-minute “The African Magician” has a fast-paced introduction followed by an eerie, unusual passage with a Middle Eastern tinge. On the other hand, the nearly eight-minute “Pari Banu Kidnapped” is a thoughtful piece with dark hues which reflects a plot-point when the prince’s love is taken from him and sold to a Chinese emperor. The second half of “Pari Banu Kidnapped” is dynamic and echoes a fight between adversaries who want the princess. The rest of Johnston’s soundtrack mirrors the cinematic landscape. Throughout there are specific themes which surface and repeat. This is the case in soundtracks since motifs signify characters and personalities. Thus, listening to this soundtrack independent of the film means someone is missing part of the narrative. That said, Johnston’s compositions have more than enough changing aspects—from beautiful soprano sax solos to funky organ breakdowns—and tunes which range from eccentricity to dramatic moments that there is plenty to hear which is enticing, exciting and sometimes enthralling.

Diggin' Bones Album Cover

Diggin’ Bones
Phillip Johnston and the Coolerators

The ten tracks on Diggin’ Bones—credited to Phillip Johnston & the Coolerators—have some similarities to The Adventures of Prince Achmed. The music often has a parallel construction due to an analogous quartet formation: Johnston on soprano and alto sax; Spence on organ; Cecire on drums; the only change is adding bassist Lloyd Swanton (who co-leads noted Australian ensemble The Necks). Also, Johnston’s music has traits which combine humor, drama and an employment of recurrent thematic choices. The material is a mixture of tunes penned for this session and older ones reconfigured for this album. The overriding approach is funky organ jazz with a modernist touch. The soulful “What Is Real?” goes back to when Johnston was a member of the 1980s NYC jazz and no wave scenes. The straightforward funk groove which percolates through “What Is Real?” offers space for improvisations from Johnston and Spence while Cecire and Swanton provide a fluctuating but groove-disposed rhythmic foundation. The title track has a klezmer inclination, although Johnston states, “I don’t really hear it that way. I don’t know what it is, maybe a bitonal multi-world music dance number.” The intricate “Later” is even older. Johnston says the main melody dates to the mid-70s, but he struggled for decades to turn the melody into a complete composition. The current version of “Later” has an inimitable arrangement where the quartet at times drops out and solo instruments take the spotlight; there is a spooky organ solo run through some effects; then Swanton’s ethereal solo bass improvisation; and Cecire supplies a bouncy drum solo. One of Johnston’s other new pieces is the motivic “Ducket Got a Whole in It,” which has many short musical ideas (some quite humor-laced) alongside a persisting theme. It’s a fine example of how Johnston can edge toward avant-jazz but remain in conventional jazz territory. Johnston’s sole cover is a ska-tinted rendition of folk musician Michael Hurley’s “The Revenant.” Hurley was part of the 1960s Greenwich Village folk community but now lives in rural northwest Oregon and performs in and around Portland. Anyone familiar with Hurley’s original may not recognize Johnston’s interpretation, since there is a certain difference. Both The Adventures of Prince Achmed and Diggin’ Bones are worth discovering for fans of organ/sax jazz who want to experience something atypical and slightly idiosyncratic.

The Adventures of Prince Achmed:
Phillip Johnston – soprano saxophone; James Greening – trombone; Alister Spence and Casey Golden – organ, keyboards; Nic Cecire – drums

Diggin’ Bones: 
Phillip Johnston – soprano and alto saxophone; Alister Spence – organ; Lloyd Swanton – bass; Nic Cecire – drums

TrackList:
The Adventures of Prince Achmed:
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

Diggin’ Bones:
Frankly
What Is Real?
Diggin’ Bones
Temporary Blindness
Later
The Revenant
Legs Yet
Trial by Error
Regrets #17
Ducket Got a Whole in It

—Doug Simpson