Joel Forrester/Phillip Johnston
Live At The Hillside Club

(Asynchronous Records)

It's quite strange to have "co-leaders of The Microscopic Septet" as still the best tag at one's disposal when it comes to succinctly describe two musicians who have done quite a lot, in a lot of quite diverse contexts, in careers by now spanning several decades. Stranger still, if one considers that The Micros' "fame" when it comes to the "general audience" is quite small - several orders of magnitude smaller than the critical kudos The Micros have received for their work - and barely enough to have them filed under the "cult groups" category.

But this time, for once, I have no reason to feel guilty. Sure, the relationship between pianist Joel Forrester and saxophonist (mostly soprano) Phillip Johnston (both, it goes without saying, are quite prolific composers) predates the start of the septet, the same being true of the love both men share when it comes to the music of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk. But without The Micros this CD would not exist: in fact, Live At The Hillside Club was recorded during a brief tour of the (USA) West Coast while the duo was promoting the fine album called Friday the Thirteenth - The Micros Play Monk.

Monk's presence is sometimes literal, four Monk compositions being featured here: Well You Needn't, Pannonica, Evidence, and Epistrophy. Attentive listeners will have great fun trying to detect his influence on those compositions penned by Johnston (one) and Forrester (seven, the duo's building blocks appear for the most part to be his). Listening to this album also means listening to a musical partnership that - the specific compositions notwithstanding ('cause these are compositions with very specific demands we are talking about, not "heads") - lives "in the moment", the satisfaction on the part of the players being at times quite palpable: check Forrester's "Yeah!" after a very fast unison, skillfully executed, on Your Little Dog (at about 6' 11"); or Forrester's suggestion - "Let's Play Together!" - a few seconds after another satisfied "Yeah!" (at about 6' 16") on Pannonica.

The album was recorded and mixed very well (by Bruce Koball). I don't know whether my personal impression of being right there on stage, sitting between the piano and the soprano music stand, was due to my having listened to this album on headphones on a (quality) portable CD player (the laser of my CD player #1 being in need of a check). In any case, one can easily hear Forrester's foot starting the pieces, those "Yeah!"s, and also some la-di-da. The only thing that's impossible to hear is... the audience!, I mean, the audience applauding at the end of the pieces. There sure is an audience - somebody coughs! So when - almost at the end of the album - there is applause, at last (between I Know What Girls Like and Epistrophy) it's almost like the audience managed to untie themselves from the ropes that held them captive. (Is it really "Sbagliato!" the word somebody shouts at about 3'18" in I Know What Girls Like?)

As it's to be expected when it comes to these particular players, the music is quite diverse. A couple themes - first track Bunny Boy, also Loser's Blues - reminded me of Charles Mingus (try adding a muted trumpet to both themes). There's a pinch of quasi-Minimalism: check Second Nature, for solo piano, in 11/8, which Forrester describes as being a cross between Charles Ives and Herbie Nichols; also the piano solo - a "lock-handed counterpoint" - on Epistrophy. There's the Spiritual touch of Did You Ever Want To Cry (which reminded me a bit of Wayne Horvitz, and which would be perfect for an album by Charlie Haden's Liberation Music Orchestra). There's a track for soprano solo - Splat - with an arpeggiated fragment which to me sounds like having "Latin" accents. There are instances where the left hand on the piano perfectly impersonates a "walking bass" (Bunny Boy, Evidence), or the soprano sax impersonates a very Ellington-sounding reed section backing the piano (Bunny Boy, Well You Needn't).

Talking about the whole picture, it's good to see both men dealing with many different climates while at the same time never sounding "generic". Attentive listening sessions will reveal the intricate routes hidden under the surface of Johnston's relaxed performances.

Alas!, though this is not a "difficult" album, it's a quite subtle piece of work, which in today's world can only signal "commercial death". There are useful liner notes, and elegant visuals by Vera Varlamova. Another bull's eye for Asynchronous Records!

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2011 | Oct. 23, 2011