The Microscopic Septet
Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play The Blues


Being told about a new album by The Microscopic Septet, "soon to be released", made me feel great joy - also, a great deal of curiosity. I have to admit that the first thing I was curious about was something of an "extra-musical" nature: Did the "Blues" in the album title represent the way the group felt about Donald Trump's victory as the new President of the United States of America?

Now I know that those were unrelated events, the album having already been recorded in two days - just two days: the 24th and the 25th - last May.

There were other aspects I was curious about, of course. Would the new album prove to be as good as I hoped it to be? What kind of innovations would it offer? Where would it fit in the group's canon? What kind of changes would the new "Blues-tinged" programmatic approach entail?

Sure, the Blues has always been part of the music of the group. But "Blues" is a multi-layered, polysemic tag. Let's go back in time to the year 1967, when John Mayall and Captain Beefheart were both filed under "Blues".

Just like their two most recent albums, the new one was financed thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. This time the sessions were held in a different studio: not the excellent Systems Two in Brooklyn of those previous albums, but at Tedesco Studios (a quick Web search immediately told me of the studio's high quality standards). Acting as a kind of "continuity element", excellent sound engineer Jon Rosenberg recorded, mixed, and mastered the music.

As usual, rehearsals were conducted at Michiko Rehearsal Studios. A step that's only logical, given the fact that one of the (two) leaders lives thousand miles away from his fellow players. Every time, the group's precarious financial state makes re-creating the proper ensemble feel from scratch an imperative.

The album got its U.S. release on February, 12th, with the European release coming about two weeks later.

Having no external pressure applied on me, I took all the time I felt the matter needed. This time, I was surprised to see that my judgment process proved to be especially complex.

As one could easily guess, this new "Blues dimension" does not differ a whole lot from what the group has already offered in the past, and I think nobody would have any trouble guessing the name of the group, the identity of the soloists, and the name of the composers after just a few bars. Sure, here and there one can hear a more "streamlined" approach, winds often working as a section, solos more in the "soloist + rhythm section" frame one usually associates with what is labeled as "Jazz". I'll talk about this aspect more extensively later.

Before getting the album I wondered if the idea of the work having a "theme", so to speak, could be linked to the concept - so common in today's market - of giving both reviewers and buyers an "angle", a "hook". If Friday the Thirteenth was "The Micros Play Monk", what was Manhattan Moonrise about? (These are topics that critics from the rarefied world of the beaux arts have no reason to think about, but we live in a more material dimension.)

After getting the album I wondered if this more streamlined dimension was maybe the only available choice when having meager finances at one's disposal, a condition which would make creating "in the lab" that perfect mechanism of synchronized interlocks which is the required pre-condition for the group's intricate creations to properly work a practical impossibility.

I would have preferred a different (sub)title, maybe something breezy like Thirteen Easy Pieces? It's my opinion, in fact, that for most listeners "Play The Blues" means a lot less than what this album can offer. But that's just my opinion.

Let's mention the players: Phillip Johnston, Don Davis, Mike Hashim, and Dave Sewelson are on soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, with Joel Forrester on piano, Dave Hofstra on double bass, and Richard Dworkin on drums. As per their usual, Johnston and Forrester penned all the tracks (save one).

(I don't know, maybe somebody at Cuneiform or in the group is superstitious? While the group's most recent albums both feature twelve tracks, here the featured compositions number thirteen. But they're really fourteen, the last one - an uncredited "tab" lasting about 10" - greatly surprising me blasting from my speakers as I was walking towards my CD player in complete silence. Readers are warned.)

The album has a fine recorded sound, a perfect match to the music. The "Monk" CD had a much better sound, the drums having a "tamburoso" dimension made of beautiful timbres that's absent here. But here it's the role of the rhythm section that's different, with both the hi-hat and a cymbal on the right channel and a "ride" on the left keeping time. There's an excellent rimshot, the same being true of all drums - also the bass drum - all featured "as needed". Carrying the swing is the double bass sounding quite clean, which makes it possible for the instrument to appear very high in the mix. (The bass sound is less "bloated" than on the previous album.) Kudos to the engineer, and - of course - to the bass player.

Though I didn't use a chronometer, to me it sounds like on this album the tenor plays more. Playing a lot of notes, but never too many, the baritone is as perfect as ever. The alto sax is also very good. The piano is impeccable.

I was greatly surprised to see that Phillip Johnston's soprano sax raised such a long series of questions the likes of which I haven't seen in ages. In a nutshell, it's like Johnston is playing an instrument that's not his own, one that gives him great problems. I hypothesized that somebody could have stolen his instrument during the lunch break, something that will sound totally ridiculous to all but those who live in an environment where crime runs rampant and instruments routinely disappear from parked cars. If we talk about the quality of his ideas, the elegance of his phrasing, the originality of his melodic explorations, his versatility when it comes to "style", Johnston is still the same instrumentalist I've loved so much. But when he plays a solo - and check this: almost all the tracks where he solos appear at the end of the album - Johnston sounds like he's trying to tame something unruly and whose behavior is impossible to predict.

Is it really like this? Is my idea of "microtonality" so primitive that I'm not able to perceive "controlled dissonance"? Should I do some homework, and spend my summer holidays listening to a ton of Ayler, Coleman, and Mitchell? Is it Nature's way of telling me the time has come to change my occupation?

Cat Toys, by Johnston, inhabits that "noir" dimension so dear to its composer. Ensemble, groove, a theme, nice wind background, piano. Fine tenor solo. Funny thing, at about 1' 38", there's a saxophone (a soprano?) that appears to "remind" the tenor of a phrase that has to be played at that point. Theme, transition, and here's an authoritative-sounding double bass solo. Theme, piano, close.

Blues Cubistico, by Johnston, starts with winds playing "out of synch" (best I can do), maybe in parallel with the "optical distortion" implied by the title. A fast transition for soprano, alto, tenor, baritone, takes us to a baritone solo. Start-stop from the winds, lively rhythm section. In closing, we're back to the "out of synch" figure.

Dark Blue, by Forrester, starts with double bass, piano, and drums with hi-hat. Theme for piano, then winds playing unison. Fine tenor solo, transition, here's a baritone solo. A classy arrangement choice, there's a fine moment with soprano and alto playing parallel. Back to the themes - piano, winds - then an arpeggio for winds in accelerando, with fine backing by the snare drum. Theme, and a low bass note plus cymbal to end the piece.

Don't Mind If I Do, by Johnston, starts with a lively theme for soprano, then playing unison with the piano, something that's bound to remind the listener of their duo concerts. More winds, then solos from tenor and alto, then a "Cuban"-sounding percussion with backing by winds, theme.

Migraine Blues (for Wendlyn Alter), by Forrester, starts like a "marching band" Blues la Monk, with snare drum and soprano. There's a tenor sax solo, "shouter"-style, then a baritone solo. The "migraine" is impersonated by the baritone, sounding more and more agitated and distorted, so acting as "disturbance" to the "marching band" trying to act like nothing's wrong. In closing, piano and double bass.

PJ In The 60s, by Forrester, starts with a tenor sounding halfway between Anthony Braxton and Roscoe Mitchell with agitated "Free" backing from the drums. Surprise!, the composition goes "Swing!" with double bass and hi-hat, then a fine mixture of tenor and alto appears. This is followed by a fine interchange of soprano and baritone appearing on opposite sides of the stereo spread, then a fine drum solo - listen to the excellent sound of the bass drum - taking turns with the piano. Theme.

When It's Getting Dark, by Johnston, reminded me of some movie soundtracks from the 60s, almost like a faster Peter Gunn, with "pushy" riffs, and great drums. Here soprano and winds play a kind of "call and response". Solos by alto, tenor, and baritone. Theme. In closing, there's a long decay from the cymbal.

Simple-Minded Blues, by Forrester, starts with winds playing arpeggios and single notes. An arpeggio for piano and double bass, rimshot, then a "sleepwalking" theme sounding quite Monk-related. A piano solo quite Monk-like, tenor sax solo, then a double bass solo. Then it's back to the "sleepwalking" theme with snare drum, the piece ends with a high note from the soprano.

After You, Joel, by Forrester, is a brief, very joyous-sounding piece. Soprano, interlocking winds, then a solo for piano and rhythm section. A solo for soprano with winds background, solo from drums and double bass, transition for alto, theme.

12 Angry Birds, by Johnston, has a chiaroscuro mood la 'Round About Midnight. Theme for soprano with high notes from the piano, unison-style. A solo for soprano and rhythm section, and something that reminded me of a slowed-down "Dixieland" motif.

Quizzical, by Johnston, is a kind of "Bop tune". Theme, and a fine wind counterpoint to the soprano. Piano solo, a long soprano solo, theme.

Silent Night appears in a "Bluesy" arrangement penned by Forrester. Long piano intro, theme by the ensemble, long soprano solo, then solo parts for alto, tenor, and baritone. Piano, and then it's back to the theme.

I've Got A Right To Cry, penned by Joe Liggins, is the album's only cover. A lively song - from the mid-40s, I think, which I only know from the version recorded in 1963 by Mose Allison on his album Mose Allison Sings - whose melody is performed by the ensemble like a closing tag, with vocal contribution by Sewelson. Tenor sax solo, ensemble, close.

I already talked about track #14 earlier.

Hoping to be able to catch The Microscopic Septet at their best on some European stage.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2017 | Mar. 12, 2017