Old Friends Hang Out and Play a Little Monk
The reason to own this album is because it has a lot of hard-to-find Joel Forrester material. Pianist Forrester and saxophonist Phillip Johnston have performed together as far back as the mid-70s, both as duo and more famously as ringleaders of the Microscopic Septet, the cleverly shapeshifting, frequently satirical swing unit that emerged during the punk era and is still as irrepressibly vital today as it was then. To promote the Micros’ excellent Friday the 13th album, a Thelonious Monk collection, the two went on a brief west coast tour at the end of last year. This one, Live at the Hillside Club, was recorded in Berkeley last November. It’s a warm, engaging performance, as imbued with the two’s signature wits as much as you’d expect; while there are Monk tunes here, the emphasis is on original material. The chemistry that comes from playing together for the better part of 35 years is all over this disc, right off the bat with the wry, catchy opening track, Bunny Boy, Johnston taking it from echoes of ragtime to echoes of dixieland before Forrester brings it back with a characteristically goodnatured bite. As the title gives away, the song is at least partially a dig at someone.
But Forrester’s titles aren’t always nearly as direct. Some Things Don’t Work Out is not a lament, but a lyrical jazz waltz which then goes straight-up 4/4 and even more jaunty before it winds down: in this case, maybe it was a good thing whatever it was ended when it did. Your Little Dog, a requiem for a mutt, has a cinematic (some might say sentimental) quality, with an artful handoff from Forrester to Johnston before the piano finally takes it out for one last stroll. Dark whimsicality hits a peak here with Loser’s Blues: when Johnston swirls his way to the top of the crescendo before the final chorus, it’s bliss, at least bliss among the down and out. The Forrester compositions here also include the bucolic Did You Ever Want to Cry – based on an old spiritual – and Second Nature, a solo piano piece dating from the early 70s that sounds like Philip Glass (did Forrester know who Glass was at the time? One can only wonder).
Johnston’s only composition here is a Splat, solo soprano sax piece, bright but subtle variations on a simple descending motif with some unexpected ragtime allusions. The Monk stuff is done true to form: Monk’s genius was that he took the surreal for granted and made the most of it, and that’s these guys do. Well You Needn’t is creepy fun expertly done, Pannonica direct yet relaxed and unselfconsciously beautiful, and with Epistrophy, they let its carnivalesque quality speak for itself rather than being caricaturish. Happily, throughout this album audience noise is almost completely absent. More concert recordings should be like this, not just because of the quality of the music.
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