Scottish keyboardist Peter Johnstone has picked a dream team of world class jazz talents for his upcoming tour and recording. Feature/ interview by Rob Adams.
Currently best known as the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra’s regular pianist, Peter Johnstone will be focusing on Hammond organ in a quartet that features New York-based vibes virtuoso Joe Locke, saxophonist Tommy Smith and drummer Alyn Cosker on the dates that begin in Aberdeen on Thursday 19 October, culminating with a high-profile appearance at Ronnie Scott’s on Tuesday 24 October.
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“I’ve enjoyed working with Joe musically when he’s been over to guest with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and he’s always very friendly and positive,” says Johnstone. “I started writing for what turned out to be this quartet and it just kind of all fell into place quite naturally.”
Johnstone heard organ and vibes working well together in his imagination.
“There aren’t too many examples that I can think of but the recordings Bobby Hutcherson did with Joey DeFrancesco really excited me and I could hear Joe playing the first two or three new tunes I wrote,” he says. “So I got in touch with Joe and Tommy and they both said to just let them know where they had to be and when, and I thought, I’d better get on with this!”
Johnstone and Smith have had an eventful musical relationship over the past fifteen or so years. When the pianist auditioned for Smith’s youth jazz orchestra, Smith turned him down. Undeterred, Johnstone went away and practised, and practised. The first fruits of this regime came when Johnstone won the Young Scottish Jazz Musician of the Year title in 2012. By now he was studying on the jazz course at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland that Smith founded and directs.
There he met his colleagues in Square One, the quartet with which Johnstone won the Peter Whittingham Jazz Award and recorded two albums, the second one featuring the American saxophonist Andy Middleton as their guest. Johnstone went on to win a Yamaha Scholarship and when Smith put his Embodying the Light quartet together to pay homage to John Coltrane, he invited Johnstone to play piano.
“It’s always an amazing journey playing with Tommy,” says Johnstone, who as well as working with Smith’s quartet and joining the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra is now Smith’s regular partner in a duo that has been lauded on both sides of the Atlantic. “It can be challenging because he always plays at an incredible level of intensity but it feels natural in all the different settings we play in.”
Away from those various settings with Smith, Johnstone leads a piano trio and enjoys playing Hammond organ – where he is effectively keyboardist and bassist – in the trio Prime, with guitarist Kevin Mackenzie and drummer Doug Hough, and in saxophonist Paul Towndrow’s trio, where he has the familiar presence of Alyn Cosker (with whom Johnstone also plays in the SNJO) on drums.
“Alyn was the natural choice for the quartet with Joe and Tommy,” says Johnstone. “He’s so versatile and he’s incredibly diligent. Some of the SNJO charts are pretty demanding but Alyn’s always on top of them and he’s so easy to work with.”
Johnstone has put together quite a demanding schedule himself for the quartet. They’ll play together as a band for the first time in rehearsal the day before the Aberdeen gig. They then play four gigs in three days before going into the studio for a day and playing one more concert – in Ambleside – before playing at Ronnie Scott’s.
“It sounds hectic but I think we all thrive on this kind of activity,” says Johnstone. “Joe and Tommy have a long history together – they first played together in the 1980s – which gives them such a great understanding. Then there’s Alyn, who as well as being a leader in his own right, has such a massive breadth of experience to draw on when approaching new music. It’s a good spread of experience and ages and I can’t wait to hear what we sound like. We’ll be playing mostly my music – I’ve written stacks of new stuff with this instrumentation and musical chemistry in mind – but I’m not looking too far ahead. I want to enjoy the week we have coming up first.”
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The Peter Johnstone International Organ Quartet plays at Jazz at the Blue Lamp, Aberdeen on Thursday 19 October; the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow (1pm) on Friday 20th October; The Queen’s Hall, Edinburgh (8pm) on Friday 20th October; Perth Theatre on Saturday 21th October; Zeffirellis in Ambleside on Monday 23rd October; and Ronnie Scott’s in London on Tuesday 24th October.