Noel Johnston – Salted Coffee (2014)

Van Halen-inspired and jazz-trained guitarslinger Noel Johnston merges his passion for both worlds for his third album Salted Coffee, out March 11, 2014 via Armored Records. With a bombast echoing those of the hair bands of the 1980s but also a tastefulness that’s inspired by Jeff beck and Pat Metheny, the Dallas-based Johnston tears through a divergent set of three covers and five originals that find coherency on Johnston’s guitar mastery alone.

Johnston describes Salted Coffee this way: “Fusion. Rock. Funk. If the Foo Fighters got a Jazz degree. Rock with 4th-mode Harmonic-Major, and other silliness.” And if you’re skeptical of that claim, “Salted Coffee,” the song that kicks off the album, will make a believer out of you. It rocks hard first with a downpour of power chords and then settles into a flurry of licks amidst a jazzy progression. Out of nowhere pops up a fonky wah-wah bass solo courtesy of Jeff Plant, who lends muscular, bottom-end support throughout in tandem with drummer Jason ‘JT’ Thomas and percussionist Greg Beck..

It hardly gets jazzier than Joe Henderson’s “Inner Urge,” but Johnston adapted it so well to the heavier metal fusion it’s easy to imagine that it could have been composed that way, and he digs deep into that lydian scale that distinguishes a good part of the melody. He then creates a coda that’s a clever variation of the theme he only makes apparent right at the end. Nat Simon’s “Poinciana,” Ahmad Jamal’s calling card, gets a lighter treatment in Johnston’s hands, as he employs a tasty fingerpicked technique, but still delivers a solo that gets worked up and Thomas is right there with him to deliver pounds of passion.

Johnston turned to the Beatles for his third cover, John Lennon’s gorgeous Abbey Road deep cut “Because.” His lead guitar follows the vocal lines, eventually deviating and creating his own interpretation of the hypnotic melody. Shaun Martin’s organ adds a Rod Argent rock soul element.

Martin also joins Johnston — this time on a vintage synthesizer — for the catchy faux reggae tune “Big 80088,” and trades nifty asides with him. Johnston explores other moods, such as the noir rocker “Bat Tips,” the smoky, self-descriptive “Dark Blues,” and the soulful and laid back “The Fall.”

No matter what Johnston is playing, he does it with emotion, power and accomplished expression. Salted Coffee is like Blow By Blow, updated.

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Visit Noel Johnston’s website for more info.

S. Victor Aaron

S. Victor Aaron is a CPA and mid-level data analyst for a Fortune 100 company by day, music opinion-maker at night. His musings are strewn out across the interwebs on jazz.com, AllAboutJazz.com, a football discussion board and some inchoate customer reviews of records from the late 1990s on Amazon under a pseudonym that will never be revealed. Contact Something Else! at reviews@somethingelsereviews.com.