Lucid Culture


A Week in the Park With One of New York’s Most Colorful Jazz Pianists

Pianist Joel Forrester is one of the great wits and great tunesmiths in jazz. The co-founder of the colorful, cinematic Microscopic Septet may be best known for writing a famous radio theme for a network which enjoyed a multimillion-listener following in the decades before it was weaponized in the 2020 mass compliance campaign. Since the 80s, Forrester has also pursued a solo career infused with a sardonic wit that’s sometimes cartoonish, sometimes very slyly subtle. He’s playing a weeklong solo stand starting July 25 through 29 at half past noon outdoors on the back terrace behind the library at Bryant Park.

One good record that’s worth a spin if you’re thinking checking out any of these performance is his characteristically playful duo album Status Sphere with tenor saxophonist Vito Dieterle, which hit the web right before the lockdown and is streaming at youtube. It’s a mix of both obscure and familiar tunes by Forrester’s big influence, Thelonious Monk, along with a handful of originals.

The two musicians open with Work, the proprietor of swanky New York jazz club the Django taking the melody line with a carefree, smoky approach as Forrester works a jaunty stride pulse. The duo make a slow, turbo-hydramaticized drag out of Crepuscule With Nellie, which they reprise even more expansively at the end of the album.

The first of the Forrester tunes, Mock Time is a catchy swing number built around a bouncy series of descending riffs, Dieterle adding edgy flourishes. Forrester’s subtle dynamic shifts and sudden coy accents anchor Dieterle’s calm lyricism in their take of Ruby My Dear.

Forrester’s Requiem For Aunt Honey is a fondly swaying, gospel-tinged song without words. A return to Monk with a deviously offbeat version, spring-loaded version of Let’s Call This is next, followed by another Forrester number, About Françoise, a misty, steady ballad that brings to mind Fred Hersch’s most Monk-influenced work.

The take of Pannonica here is on the opulent side, Dieterle’s dancing lines over Forrester’s muted understatement and winking rises. The most obscure of the Monk compositions is the cheery, latin-inflected Ba-Lu-Bolivar Ba-Lues Are. Forrester adds smirky ornamentation as well a pouncing rhythm as Dieterle chooses his spots in the wryly titled Don’t Ask Me Now. And in The Comeback, the two work erudite variations on a theme that will resonate with fans of the edgily iconic repertoire here.

Left to his own devices onstage, Forrester can be totally in the tradition, or go way down the rabbit hole, much in the same vein as Anthony Coleman. The most recent time this blog was in the house at a solo Forrester gig, it was an early evening show in the summer of 2018 at a onetime Park Slope hotspot (since weaponized in the 2020 compliance campaign) where he decided to throw caution to the wind and opt for thorny terrain. It’s a fair bet he’ll concentrate on the more accessible stuff in his repertoire for the midtown park gigs.

July 23, 2022 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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.

December 5, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment