The Microscopic Septet
Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play
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?
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.
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?
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".
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.
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.
album got its U.S. release on February, 12th, with the European release coming
about two weeks later.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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).
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
Blues (for Wendlyn Alter), by Forrester, starts like a "marching
band" Blues à 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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Angry Birds, by Johnston, has a chiaroscuro mood à 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
by Johnston, is a kind of "Bop tune". Theme, and a fine wind
counterpoint to the soprano. Piano solo, a long soprano solo, theme.
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.
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.
already talked about track #14 earlier.
to be able to catch The Microscopic Septet at their best on some European
© Beppe Colli 2017
CloudsandClocks.net | Mar. 12, 2017