The Microscopic Septet
Manhattan Moonrise


Those who wonder if The Microscopic Septet still "got it" can stop worrying - and rejoice! Sure, quite a few years have passed since we last heard an album of original compositions by the group, and concerts have been few and far between. But now we have a new album, a very fine one, recorded in Technicolor sound. An album featuring fresh and colourful compositions, dressed in inventive arrangements, enriched by impeccable instrumental contributions.

Let's backtrack a bit now, shall we?

Released in 2006, the two volumes of The History Of The Micros - Seven Men In Neckties and Surrealistic Swing - made it possible for all listeners to revaluate the history of this very original-sounding ensemble.

It was only logical, then, to hope for a new album to be released. Good but not great, Lobster Leaps In (2008) proved to be less than what I expected. As I argued at length in my review, the real reason for this appeared to be not poor inspiration nor inadequate instrumental performances, but a recorded sound that in the end made it difficult for listeners to perceive the subtle threads that make the music of the Micros what it is (come to think of it, at times the Micros sounded a bit tense, too). Repeated listening sessions definitely repaid attentive listeners, but in the end the album was not what one imagined it could have been.

A short while later, the group hit the bull's eye with Friday The Thirteenth (2010), where the Micros revisited a few chosen pages off the Thelonious Monk songbook - let's not forget that Monk had been one of the most important formative influences for the group's composers. The CD liner notes revealed the Micros had financed the album thanks to a Kickstarter campaign. The recorded sound was of a very high quality, the album being recorded at Systems Two Recording Studios, Brooklyn, NY, and engineered, mixed, and mastered by the great Jon Rosenberg. The fact that Michiko Rehearsal Studio was also mentioned made it apparent that the group had wanted to fine-tune their performances before entering the recording studio.

One could only hope that the meticulous care that produced such great results could be applied to an album of original compositions. Which is exactly what happened here. So I can only hope that those critics who spoke in such laudatory terms about the group's previous album will do the same for this one.

Manhattan Moonrise features what by now is the group's regular line-up: Phillip Johnston, Don Davis, Mike Hashim, and Dave Sewelson respectively appearing on soprano, alto, tenor, and baritone, with Joel Forrester on piano, Dave Hofstra on double bass, and Richard Dworkin on drums. As it's to be expected, Phillip Johnston and Joel Forrester are the sole writers. I couldn't help but notice that this time Johnston penned fewer compositions than per his usual. Also, it appears to me that this time Johnston chose to feature the colour of his instrumental presence a bit less - he's clearly audible in the ensemble work, of course, also in a few solos, which - as it's to be expected - are of a very high quality. Let's not forget that it was Johnston himself who produced the album...

... and also penned the fine piece titled Is The Microscopic Septet Still Necessary?, which precedes the usual liner notes that deal with the individual compositions, Johnston's piece being a clear-eyed exploration of today's climate when it comes to the state of both art and commerce.

As it's customary when it comes to The Micros, the music featured on the album inhabits many "styles" with great agility and finesse, with no trace of "ironic" postmodernism. Influences can be detected here and there, from Mingus to Monk, but of course it depends on what you know: the last track of the CD reminded me of Carla Bley on such albums as I Hate To Sing, but the liner notes talk about Beethoven!

Very fine instrumental performances abound, Dworkin's drums intelligently placed in the stereo spread. This is an item of great importance, so I invite listeners to pay special attention: While it's true that the wind section of the Microscopic Septet - all the group's instruments, in fact - are perfectly comfortable in their "implicit" swing, it's also true that it's the subtle work of Dworkin on drums and cymbals - listen to the way he tunes those drums - that gives the group something special. The same being true, of course, when it comes to Hofstra's double bass, which sounds like the epitome of elegance and good taste.

Opening track, When You Get In Over Your Head by Johnston works like a kind of "bridge" from the Monk CD to here. "This is what I think of as a tune 'in the Micros style'", writes Johnston. Lotsa variety in just 3' 50". A "swinging" part from the tenor, intermezzo for alto sax, piano, a "hushed" pedal from the winds in the right channel, then it's time for the drums to come to the fore, then a brief bass solo.

No Time sounds like a "bossa", and presents a "puzzle in time". Fine ensemble colours, piano solo with rhythms!, then a tenor sax solo, quite swinging!, then a fine exchange by piano and tenor.

At 8' 15", Manhattan Moonrise is the only extended track on the album. Swing! Excellent work from the ensemble. "Moonlight" by soprano. There's a different section that to me sounds quite "minimalistic". Time for a fine bass solo (with echoes of Wilbur Ware?), with reeds and piano appearing here and there. Fine tenor solo, with nice backing. A "swinging" section takes us to a baritone solo, then it's time for the soprano, then a fine "reed salad". In closing, vocals go: "Good night!", and this is a track that'll go down extremely well in concert.

Obeying The Chemicals reminded me a bit of Funky AECO by the Art Ensemble Of Chicago (on the album The Third Decade). As per the liner notes, it's a mix of funk + boogie-woogie. Here the alto sax comes to the fore, fine unison by double bass and baritone, then an interlude for piano and rhythms, soprano, "tutti". In closing, the theme for alto.

A Snapshot Of The Soul sounds quite "Monk-related". Here Johnston's soprano comes to the fore, reminding me of Steve Lacy. There's a fine tenor solo, swing!, then it's time for a dialogue by soprano and piano. Great theme.

Star Turn sounds quite Mingus-like, the theme and main solo for alto sax. At 2' 01" I hear a quote of the piano ostinato played by Horace Parlan that appears at about 2' on Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting by Charles Mingus, on his album Blues & Roots. This is a piece that's quite simple but very beautiful.

Hang It On A Line highlights the baritone. Musical quotes abound, I recognized a line off Hey Joe by Jimi Hendrix (at 3' 24"), at first performed by double bass, then by the ensemble; and a line off The Beatles' A Day In The Life (at 4' 54"); maybe also something by Jimmy Smith? The piece has a fine theme, with a nice flavour of R&B/Calypso, performed by the reed section, and the baritone. There's a fine ascending line performed by the reed section, the baritone to the fore.

Let's Coolerate One has a riff! swinging! which sounds typical! of his composer. There's a fine baritone solo with excellent backing by the rhythm section, then a solo by tenor. Piano. Then, baritone and tenor have a conversation, this, too, reminded me a bit of Mingus.

Suspended Animation is a swinging, "cool", "relaxed" mid-tempo. It starts with baritone plus rhythms, and piano. Theme, again, with soprano and alto. Check those drums: fine rim-shot, then a half-open hi-hat when backing the piano, then it's an exuberant ride cymbal. There's a baritone solo, then a bass transition takes us back to the ensemble.

Blue features a fine, lyrical, theme, then a "group improvisation" whose shape is quite transparent. Then it's back to the lyrical-sounding theme, the soprano coming to the fore.

You Got That Right sounds like an album closer to me, with echoes of Monk and Herbie Nichols. There's a figure played by the baritone. Reeds, double bass, cymbals. There's a very fine soprano solo, quite "Dixieland" to me. Check that fine melodic sequence played a few times by all the saxophones, in descending order.

In closing, Occupy Your Life starts with a "classical-sounding" theme, then a "bossa" for baritone, then alto and tenor. There's an interlude for piano, "tutti", baritone. Alto. Then, a vocal ensemble.

Though the music featured on this album is far from difficult - it definitely sounds very user-friendly to me! - it is miles beyond what the "average consumer" consumes nowadays. These are stingy streaming times, so what can one say? Maybe that "Manhattan Moonrise is the kind of album that'll keep you fresh in Summer and warm in Winter, so... it's like two for the price of one!".

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2014 | July 29, 2014