9 November 2012
Actually it was raining when I set off for Phillip Johnston and the Coolerators at the Gods but “never rains” really refers to two international jazz acts in Canberra on one night. The first was Sydney/NYC saxist Phillip Johnston with a support band of Alister Spence, Alex Boneham and Nic Cecire. I just caught one set and what a distinct style it was. To my ears this was a post-modern melange, ironic and frosty and a matter of mind rather than emotion. Phillip played a soprano sax that sounded all the world to me like clarinet, so of another era of jazz and of society: no way you could mistake this for the instrument Coltrane played. I seem to remember the tonguing as clipped, but it was unmistakably unadorned except for a characteristic swing band vibrato when reaching for high notes. The lines he played were simple, clearly stated, ironically bland. It’s more than just a musical style, but a presence, and I felt it in his wit and stage persona. Cool, otherworldly, undemonstrative. Maybe it’s the movies, but I can associate this with the big city, with NYC, with cool underground rock. It fitted that he played one tune called “Shelley’s got a brand new handbag” that nods at funk but that he performed in a NYC new wave rock band called The Public Servants. All dry with distant wit. It’s not something that’s easily received outside its milieu but it’s a noteworthy stream of alt culture and it’s interesting to hear it visiting Canberra from the source. Shelley was not funk, but unison, lightweight melody against composed accompaniments in arrangements of disparate parts and rock grooves. Maybe it’s danceable or suits a cool club scene. This is something different for the Gods. Phillip introduced the show with a solo sax passage called Splat which merged into a calypso-St-Thomas-like tune by Albert Ayler called Ghosts that was all simple chords and joyous melody and cacophony. Then an original with unison scalar snippets then a heavy funk 4/4 than some sparse latin segments and floating Leslie and synth organ amongst other solos. Then Steve Lacy’s Prospectus with complex head and some fast walk. Then Shelley, then an attractive and simple tune by folk singer Michael Hurley (Phillip noted he was not a guitar/strummer) with a characteristic folk/blues sense of time (here 4/4 interspersed with occasional 2/4 bars). Then a final Monk tune, We see, to end the set. I was impressed at how effectively the band read. Nic Cecire just nailed the feels in the most understated way. Alex Boneham is an intensely involved and musical bassist and always a joy to my ears. His accompaniment was impressive and two solos were richly melodic statements that just spoke so well to the tune, not just the chords. Alister Spence was playing organ and this seems a more romantic instrument to me. He had the easy fluency and rapid solo lines but it was the swelling organ chords that spoke to me of gospel and soul more than irony and things of the mind. I doubt that sunny Australia and harboured Sydney can do nihilist irony like NYC new wave (but I’m forgetting Nick Cave). To maintain the po-mo references, I’ll call it an interesting pastiche, but I did feel there was a diversity of approaches here. So it was an interesting and cogitatively enlivening outing. Phillip Johnston (soprano sax) led the Coolerators with Alister Spence (organ), Alex Boneham (bass) and Nic Cecire (drums).
Cyberhalides Jazz Photos by Brian Stewart