Peter Johnstone International Organ Quartet – Scotland & England Tour
(Queen’s Hall Edinburgh, 20 October 2023 – live review by Mark McKergow)
As storm Babet blew outside, Peter Johnstone’s new all-star organ jazz quartet whirled through an ambitious programme with total commitment, dexterity and huge musicality. This is exhilarating music in all senses of the word – breathtaking, exciting and life-affirming.
Over the past decade Peter Johnstone has risen from ‘promising newcomer’ through ‘first-call regular’ to now ‘international composer and band-leader’. BBC Young Jazz Musician Of The Year 2011 and one of the first graduates of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland jazz course, Johnstone has been mostly heard on piano with award-winning band Square One, with the Scottish National Jazz Orchestra and on Tommy Smith’s Coltrane tribute project Embodying The Light. He also has a passion for the organ, appearing with Paul Towndrow’s Organ Trio. The current project is a big step up – not only is Johnstone entrusted as leader by his three more experienced colleagues (all leaders themselves), he also provides all the compositions.
While jazz organ might seem a rather niche interest, Johnstone has clearly dug deep into its history, from bluesy and groovy beginnings in the 1950s and 1960s, to the time when musicians like Jimmy Smith and Jimmy McGriff brought the swirling Hammond B3 sound to a new audience and then on through recent greats like the much-missed Joey DeFrancesco.
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Whereas the usual format is organ trio with guitar and drums, with the organist providing their own bass line using the pedals, this organ quartet has an unusual line-up, adding saxophone and changing the guitar for vibraphone. Johnstone holds nothing back, using all available limbs on his Viscount Legend organ, pedal board and swell pedal.
The opening Beyond Everything set the tone for the evening, with shifting and skittering rhythms driving forward with abounding momentum and a unison sax/vibes melody line. Saxophone legend Tommy Smith soloed with poise and precision over the storming rhythm before New York vibes maestro Joe Locke took an excellent turn. Locke has an energetic style at the instrument, playing four-malleted all the time and finishing phrases with a flourish and half-turn away before surging forward again with a mini-run-up to start his next idea. It all makes for edge-of-the-seat watching and listening. Johnstone soloed effectively with vibes providing backing harmonies before Alyn Cosker let loose with a drum solo, again over backing riffs.
Summer Song followed with more swirling rhythms and accents and what sounded like a welter of references to Spain in the richly dense theme.# Another cracking vibes solo from Joe Locke reminded me that Tommy Smith had a long musical partnership with Gary Burton in the 1980s, and the addition of vibes here gives us the rare chance to enjoy that instrument in a new context. The same is true of Johnstone’s organ playing; not often heard outside the groove/blues/soul setting and well worth exploring in a less restrained modern jazz setting where his ‘start slow and build’ style of soloing produces engaging musical results. Alyn Cosker’s drum solo over the culminating 17/8 rhythm was a masterclass in creating fluidity in the face of the metronome.
We were treated to two new pieces inspired by Johnstone’s becoming a father some 18 months ago. New Beginnings set off as a 4/4 shuffle before evolving over a juicy extended melody. The organ sound was beefed up before another extended melody section which saw Tommy Smith and Joe Locke doing a little mutual celebration having reached the end together. When You Were Born had a very quiet ballad feel with a superb solo introduction from Locke, and Smith reaching into the Ben Webster drawer with a breathy low solo section, top class music all round. The two-hour show featured eight pieces ending with Resistance Is Futile (maybe channelling the audience’s feelings by that point) which saw Joe Locke donning his glasses to read the score. The encore tune Shapeshifter gave us delightfully swinging solos with which to head home. It remains to be seen whether Johnstone majors on organ or continues with piano – he’s a very fine talent on both, and with this level of composition and performance I hope we will be hearing from him again soon.
Peter Johnstone’s International Organ Quartet is on a short tour of Scotland and England, ending at Ronnie Scott’s on Tuesday 24 October 2023 (early show). The group is in the studio too this week, so we can quite likely look forward to hearing the music again soon – in the form of an album…………