The Microscopic Septet
Friday the Thirteenth


"You can never go wrong with a Motown tune" is a saying I remember reading more than a few times, back in the 80s, when a sudden and quite drastic change of scenery made more than a few recording artists quite puzzled about what to do next. To some, Motown old songs  - a perfect mix of accessibility, class, fine instrumental touches, and a pinch of "nostalgia" - appeared as the best solution to make things go for the better. Hence, "How could one go wrong, when covering a Motown tune?".

Sure, it's a strange parallel, in a way, but I really think more than a few jazz players looked at the compositions of Thelonious Monk in a way that was not too different, especially at the time - not too long after Monk's death, in 1982 - when the winds of a "new classicism" made lots of them seek shelter in a "glorious past" of some kind. And what could go wrong, covering those compositions of such dry, bitter lyricism, and angular routes?

Plenty, in fact - also in the case of those Motown songs. So for a long time now, seeing the writing "Play Monk" is reason enough for me to rise up my hands and say "enough already!". And I still believe that the Monk-related works by Steve Lacy and the variable-size ensembles led by Misha Mengelberg under the moniker Instant Composers Pool are to this day the best specimen of "long-distance conversations" with Monk.

Monk is obviously one of the "spiritual fathers" of sax player Phillip Johnston and piano player Joel Forrester, the composers and arrangers who co-lead The Microscopic Septet. Traces can easily be found in the group's oeuvre, their cover of Crepuscule With Nellie appearing on the album Off Beat Glory (1986) the only literal homage. So it's not for reasons of suspected opportunism that I raised my eyebrows when I got the news that the group was about to record an album titled Friday the Thirteenth - The Micros Play Monk.

Their first album of "old material, fresh recorded", Lobster Leaps In (2008), in a way let me down, coming soon after the re-release of the group's complete works. I have to admit that, at the time, I strongly suspected that not everything had gone smooth when it came to the circumstances regarding the recording sessions, which for some reasons I imagined to have been far from ideal. But unfortunately, in the end, it's what's in front of us that really counts, so... And so, now it was my turn to be worried about this album.

Well, I'm happy I can say that the outcome is very positive indeed: recorded at Systems II Studios, Brooklyn, enriched by the work of skilled engineer Jon Rosenberg, Friday The Thirteenth is an excellent album.

As per its usual, the wind sections is versatile and lively: Phillip Johnston is on soprano saxophone, Don Davis on alto, Mike Hashim on tenor, and (my favourite, alongside Johnston) Dave Sewelson is on baritone. Joel Forrester is obviously on piano. On drums, Richard Dworkin is a joy - his performance needs more than one listening session to be really appreciated, readers are invited to pay attention. The same can be said of bass player David Hofstra, who - especially when performing one of those beautiful solos - to me sounded more than a bit like a mix of Oscar Pettiford and Wilbur Ware. The septet works like a clock, in a territory halfway between Monk's Music and At Town Hall. All arrangements are very good: it's "Monk la Micro", but it's never forced.

Only two minor points of a subjective nature, which I'd like to discuss before talking about the individual tracks. In my opinion, the album is a bit too long, two of the tracks - Teo and We See, which I would never rank among Monk's most memorable compositions anyway - making the album as a whole sound a bit watered-down, its impact somewhat softened; I'm sure that in concert those tracks will make sparks fly, here they don't sound as necessary, to me. Also, the "cuts" between different sections are a bit too much; sometimes they work just like different lighting in theatre or in a movie, and when they work (check Friday The Thirteen at 2' 22") the effect is fantastic; but elsewhere (check the four different sections in Gallop's Gallop) this made me too aware of the fact that I was listening to a recording, which can be distracting. But these are just minor points of a subjective nature.

Brilliant Corners starts with solo piano, then the famous theme, played by the ensemble. The dialogue between alto and tenor in the solo section seemed to me as an indirect quote of the solos played by Ernie Henry and Sonny Rollins in the famous version from 1956. There's also a fine dialogue between baritone, in the right channel, and soprano, appearing on the left.

Friday the 13th starts very percussively, the theme being performed on soprano sax, the result making one think (quite obviously) of Steve Lacy. Slowly, the winds appear, with a fine polyphony. At 2' 22" we have piano, double bass, and drums, with a fine piano solo followed by a solo part from the double bass.

The theme to Gallop's Gallop here sounds somewhat martial, and almost circus-like; it's an original choice, but I have to confess I still prefer the approach chosen in the 1955 recording featuring Gigi Gryce, Percy Heath, and Art Blakey. There's a very fine soprano solo, without a doubt one of the best performed by Johnston on this album, a fine piano solo, and it's back to the theme, this time looser.

Teo is a fine performance - Punk Monk!, according to the album's liner notes. Powerful drums, funky baritone solo.

Pannonica is performed to perfection. Theme performed by soprano with nice counterpoint, then it's time for baritone. There's a brief piano solo, and a solo part by double bass with an "Ellington-flavoured" backing (which sounds like it's performed by muted trombones, trumpets, and clarinets!). There's a soprano solo, then it's the tenor. The piano is back, then there's a fine transition towards those "muted winds" again, then theme. Really, really beautiful. My compliments to Joel Forrester, who arranged the piece.

Evidence features the angular theme for piano, and unison ensemble; there's a soprano solo, then one by tenor, the latter with a letter-perfect "pushy" chord part that's pure Monk: bravo! Piano solo, an agile interchange between drums and the ensemble, a solo bass part, and it's back to the theme.

We See has the piano and rhythm section on a cha-cha-cha tempo. There's a fine alto solo ably backed by the rhythms, then it's time for the double bass. At the end, there's one of those "typical Micros moves", the winds playing "tutti" with an accelerating tempo. Then it's back to cha-cha-cha, and fin.

Off Minor has fine piano and rhythm section, the appropriate descending phrase played by soprano. There's a swinging tenor solo with a strong backing, a fine soprano-baritone duo, then it's back to piano and rhythm section.

Arranged by Bob Montalto, Bye-Ya sounds quite Latin, not too far from the version recorded by Steve Sagle with Dr. John sitting on piano featured on the very famous double album produced by Hal Willner titled That's The Way I Feel Now (1984). Andante con brio, fine baritone solo, duos for alto-piano and soprano-tenor.

Worry Later has the theme played by the ensemble, piano solitude, an excellent soprano-piano duo. Double bass solo, theme.

Misterioso has a decidedly "noir" mood, with more than a trace of many Mingus-arranged medium-sized line-ups. There's a fine baritone solo with appropriate backing by the ensemble. A piece that's quite easy to recognize as being the work of Phillip Johnston, the fine arranger.

Epistrophy is the brief, good, appropriate close to this fine album. There's solo piano, baritone, ensemble plus drums, theme.

US critic Peter Keepnews ends his liner notes (there are also those written by the two leaders, which I found quite useful with regards to arrangements) writing: "Wherever jazz is going, it isn't going away". Well, I'm quite certain jazz won't go away. The way things are going, I'm not so certain about jazz players, though.

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2010 | Oct. 7, 2010