The Microscopic Septet
Seven Men In Neckties: The History Of The Micros Vol. 1
Surrealistic Swing: The History Of The Micros Vol. 2


"I had wanted to write for a large band, to work with arrangements. I wanted to try mixing some modern ideas into the kind of music I loved so much: the music of Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson and Don Redman. I figured I'd start with the reeds and rhythm and add the brass later. (It never happened.)" So spoke Phillip Johnston, saxophone player, composer and (once upon a time) de facto leader of the US line-up called The Microscopic Septet; though quite brief, his "declaration of intent" (taken from the quite exhaustive liner notes that Johnston himself has penned for the two double CD sets which contain the group's opera omnia) can perfectly work as a first approximation in order to describe the music played by the group. Or, if a colourful definition is what we're looking for, we could just as well settle for the expressions that have been chosen as titles for these sets: "Seven Men In Neckties" and "Surrealistic Swing".

It goes without saying that things are not so simple, as listening to this music with undivided attention will make clear. (No similarity with The Lounge Lizards, by the way: the ties may be similar, but the music is not.) A soprano saxophone player behind whom it's not too difficult to see the shadow of  Lacy (in his Monk, and also - why not? - his Dixieland mode), Johnston had the incredible luck to find musicians who were able to understand the music, and to perform it to perfection - but also in an appropriate way (it's perfectly obvious that the two should always go hand-in-hand, but reality ain't always like this); a quite stable line-up, by the way, though commercial perspectives were for the most part perennially meager. Joel Forrester was the piano player, and also the other (quite fertile) composer; after a period when the alto chair was occupied by John Zorn (a couple of tracks from that era are featured at the end of CD1 of Vol. 2, Zorn completists are invited not to expect any revelations), the alto sax has always been played by Don Davis; there were also Richard Dworkin on drums; David Hofstra on bass and tuba; Dave Sewelson on baritone sax; and the three tenors who alternatively played on the group's records: John Hagen, Danny Nigro and Paul Shapiro.

Recorded live in the studio in 1982/'83, Take The Z Train is the album that in my opinion best represents what I understand as being the initial impulse behind the line-up's origins: without a doubt, it's jazz, of a kind that in the 80s was bound to sound quite strange and decidedly out-of-time, with the reeds often playing in unison, as a section, and with a serious "swing" bent; but there are elements - such as the thematic variety, and a deep understanding of the activity of composing as being equal to "to put together" - which always prevent the music from sounding "revivalistic", and that in some ways underline the consciously "artificial" character of this music. Side One presents a very nice sequence: Chinese Twilight Zone, Wishful Thinking, Take The Z Train (with a nice surprise at 4' 30"), Mr. Bradley Mr. Martin (what's that, a William Burroughs reference?). Side Two is no less beautiful, with Pack The Ermines, I Didn't Do It, and the closing track, A Strange Thought Entered My Mind, where the mix of styles is quite easy to perceive. For brevity's sake, I'll only mention one player: Richard Dworkin, who plays beautiful, airy drum parts, especially the rhythms and colours played on the cymbals.

Recorded in November, 1984 at Mephisto, Rotterdam, The Netherlans, and released the following year, Let's Flip has the Micros travelling the same path as their previous album; we have an excellent Side One, from the opening track penned by Forrester, The Lobster Parade, (with its Hey Jude quote!) to the closing track, con brio, Let's Flip. I regard Side Two as being a bit weaker, with Johnston's Lazlo's Lament visiting somewhat Bley-like (meaning: Carla) territories - and nobody plays Bley better than Bley herself, right? In closing, an original arrangement of Johnny Come Lately by Strayhorn. The CD gives us what amounts to another LP, presenting unreleased material taken from the same concert; it's stuff that doesn't pale when compared to the released tracks; I'll only mention Women In Slow Motion by Forrester and Hofstra's Dilemma by Johnston, which later became part of the repertory (on record, and in concert) of his Transparent Quartet.

Recorded and released in 1986, Off Beat Glory is for this writer the group's lowest point on record. The chosen recorded sound (for whatever reason it was chosen) makes the record sound like "your average jazz record": a round double bass, a big-sounding piano, drums with big toms; there's nothing really "wrong" with the material on Side One, but (thanks also to the sound) Brooklyn In The Fifties, Baghdad Blues and the cover of Monk's Crepuscule With Nellie all sound a bit like your "garden variety" repertoire. The sound is the same on Side Two, but here the material sounds quite a bit more creative, from the opening of March Of The Video Reptiles by Forrester to those atmospheres which by now are typical of Johnston, in I Saw You In Utah (Idaho), I Am The Police (where at about 30" we have what sounds like a line by Monk arranged by Phillip Glass) to the closing track, By You, Do You Mean You Or Me?

Recorded and released in 1988, Beauty Based On Science (The Visit) is the first CD released by The Microscopic Septet - and their last album before splitting up, four years later. In some ways it's their best album alongside their first, from what it differs considerably. While it was always easy to tell one composer from the other, their styles now sound as being really different (I would have liked to know the rest of the story, provided the group had stayed together). Forrester pens some very nice episodes with a quite rhythmic bent - Off Color, Come From Behind, Little Bobby, Lobster In The Limelight - and a "circular" melody which will enter your brain without mercy, The Visit. I think that it's here that Johnston starts showing some of the features which will fully show up in his later work: check the "almost-soundtrack" air of Rocky's Heart (with its nice interlude of  tenor sax and piano), the polystilistic Infernal Garden Blues and Waltz Of The Recently Punished Catholic School Boys, the Mingus/noir atmosphere of The Dream Detective; titled One Room Too Far Away, the final track has a quite original development, alternating solo moments and ensemble work.

Is it all? Almost. There's an unreleased track from 1990, for a planned 7" single. There are also three versions of the Forrester-penned, and Micros-played, theme to the National Public Radio program Fresh Air: a theme of great longevity which virtually makes The Microscopic Septet "the most listened-to unknown group in the United States". And then we have some photos and stuff - but really not enough, I'd say, for a "definitive story" (how come there are no reviews nor interviews? Well, we'll have to surf the Web once again...).

Posterity is going to remember the Microscopic Septet as one of the best bands of the 1980s". This quote - taken from an article written by Francis Davis - appears (as a good-luck gesture?) in the opening portion of the group's biography assembled by their present record company as accompanying press material to the CDs. Well, the way a group is going to be remembered depends also on the person who does the writing. But I'd say that some characteristics that - relating to the cultural environment - contributed to financially make the Micros a group from the "second division" (and maybe third, or fourth) haven't changed at all. As first thing, just consider the names of the labels which originally released their albums - Press Records, Osmosis Records, Stash Records: do I have to add more? Then, add the quality of "intelligent fun" of their music: I really don't know how widespread an activity "intelligent fun" was at the time of Count Basie and Duke Ellington, but it's certain that nowadays, as a rule, "fun" is not "intelligent", and what is "intelligent" cannot be used as "fun". What's more, at least judging from the available numbers, for the audience prevailing in jazz Micros' style is way too subtle, and difficult to understand; while for the part of the "young" audience that mostly listens to "experimental rock" the music Micros made sounds "not abrasive enough", i.e., quite old. So, with hindsight, I regard Johnston's choice to mostly dedicate himself to soundtracks for cinema and theatre as excellent: it's music that can also be intelligent, but that people don't usually "listen to".

Beppe Colli

Beppe Colli 2006 | Oct. 9, 2006