The Microscopic Septet
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.
backtrack a bit now, shall we?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
© Beppe Colli 2014
| July 29, 2014