“Aggressive but never forced” describes the music of Noel Johnston to a T. His is a veritable wall of sound across which is graffittied a diagram of fire, sweat, and professionalism. The Dallas area-based guitarist grew up in Southern California, where he began his musical training on violin from an early age before switching to cello at 7. In spite of his keen abilities with a bow, his fingers yearned for a pick. Hip to the fact that his passions as a performer lay elsewhere, Johnston laddered through the garage band toolkit from the bottom up, as it were: starting with drums, moving on to bass, and at last settling on guitar. A life-changing encounter with those six amplified strings came through the iconic work of Eddie Van Halen—so much so that when he plugged in an electric and played a power chord through a distortion pedal for the first time, he knew his fate had been sealed.
Johnston’s talents are as broad as his travels. At age 10, his family uprooted from the Golden State and replanted Down Under. After spending his teens in Australia, he attended college at USC, where teachers encouraged the budding guitarist to get some hardcore jazz under his belt. As an aspiring studio musician, they told him, one had to be a musical chameleon. Johnston took to the challenge like a squirrel to a feeder. An open mind and an insatiable desire to evolve got him into the renowned jazz program at the University of North Texas. Idols Johnston had long admired had passed through its hallowed halls, and it was only natural that he should follow in their finger taps. Of his influences the list is equally varied: everyone from Kenny Wheeler and Dann Huff to Pat Metheny and Bill Frisell, Tribal Tech and King’s X to Metallica and Whitesnake—each left a pin of conquest on the map of his development.
Although accustomed to a life on the move, Johnston found a home in the Dallas-Fort Worth scene, where he soon became a vital fixture. He has since been featured on over 40 albums—three as a leader, two as a co-leader. He has performed and/or recorded with local and international musicians alike, among them Joey Baron, Sheila E., Dave Liebman, Joe Lovano, Monica Mancini, Adam Nussbaum, Gary Willis, Lucky Peterson, and Kenny Wheeler, to name but an illustrious few. Of late, he can be seen alongside local jazz icon John Adams and on the Daystar (Christian television network) daily live program The Marcus & Joni Show. These and other developments—a regular teaching job at UNT, marriage, home, and a family—have secured him in the Lone Star State for good. With so many blessings poised like a whammy bar, Johnston has been fortunate to bend the pitch of his career to whatever tune suits him. His most recent studio effort, Salted Coffee, is the result of much refinement. With so many commitments warranting his attention, Johnston has taken full advantage of precious downtime to compress original melodies into diamonds he can be proud of: his songs, his sounds, his passions immortalized on disc, activated by lasers as precise as the music they read.
Although the title of Salted Coffee arose out of a caffeine-related practical joke, the music behind it is seriously electric. For his latest studio album, Noel Johnston is the first to admit a lack of agenda. These are simply songs he wanted to explore, songs he liked, songs he wanted to create. That said, we may easily read a deeper continuity in the set list, which proceeds from peaks to valleys and back again in a rollercoaster ride of melody and mood.
As an experienced producer, composer, and educator, Johnston is no stranger to the bandleader’s role. Salted Coffee proves him more than capable of breezing through the attendant challenges—and with such fine support in bassist Jeff Plant and drummer Jason “JT” Thomas, to boot. Together, the trio maps expansive territories, blasting its unique brand of heat across the cool surface of Joe Henderson’s classic tune “Inner Urge.” There’s a touch of the cosmic to the proceedings, as if the very life force of the music were trying to communicate with alien races. The Johnston original “Bat Tips” is another heavy hitter, the title of which comes from a favorite palindrome, reflected in the Möbius chorus and speech-inflected syncopations. A dark flier, indeed.
The album isn’t all steam and smoke, however, as attested by its downtempo turns. The Nat Simon standard “Poinciana” shows the band at its most laid back. Smooth and unerringly focused, it finds Johnston in a lilting mood, Plant even more so as he paints a fretless bass solo à la da Vinci. Yet even here the band cannot help but succumb to the music’s inherent drive, letting its inner force build as it will before coming down gracefully, spirit very much intact.
Guest keyboardist Shaun Martin gleams the cube on the funky halfpipe of “Big 8008,” another Johnston-penned joint, and further via Hammond organ on a cover of the Beatles’ “Because,” for which the band reaches the album’s profoundest heights of inspiration. Percussionist Greg Beck adds his own distinctive sheen to three tracks to round out the set. The latter include the grungy title track, which kicks off the album by launching the listener into a heartfelt universe of 80s glam throwbacks, and the ominous “Dark Blues,” a cinematic excursion that turns night into day. Lastly, the descending chords of Johnston’s wryly-named “The Fall” cantilever themselves into shadowy emotional territory. Plant’s mellifluous playing, combined with JT’s brushwork, put a cap on this gorgeous realm of contrasts.
The album’s clever mixture of metal grandeur, melodic ingenuity, and technical virtuosity make for one sharp cocktail indeed, and the breathing room it affords comes selectively and exactly when needed. The end effect is one of depth, appreciation, and good vibes.
Welcome to the jungle.