Lucid Culture

JAZZ, CLASSICAL MUSIC AND THE ARTS IN NEW YORK CITY

The Microscopic Septet Play Monk to a Tie

It makes sense that the Microscopic Septet would do a Thelonious Monk cover album. Their new album Friday the 13th is a mix of unselfconsciously joyous, sometimes devious new arrangements of tuneful toe-tapping gutbucket jazz. Monk can be weird and offputting sometimes – not that those traits are necessarily a bad thing in music – but he can also be great fun, and this is mostly the fun Monk. In their thirty-year career, the Micros have lived off their reputation as one of the alltime great witty jazz bands, to the point of being something of the Spinal Tap of the genre. They’ve never met a style they couldn’t lovingly satirize, but this isn’t satire: it’s part homage, part using the compositions as a stepping-off point for their trademark “did you hear that?” moments.

Monk is also very specific: there’s no mistaking him for anyone else. So covering such an individual artist is a potential minefield: when the originals are perfectly good as they are, the obvious question arises, why bother? Unless of course you do them completely differently, and then run the risk of losing the very quality that made them appealing to begin with. How sanitized is this? How slick and how digital is this album, compared to the originals? The good news is that it’s not particularly slick, the production is bright but not obtrusive and and the arrangements are as unpredictably entertaining as you would expect from this crew – which is a lot. Co-founder and pianist Joel Forrester knew Monk personally, and it’s obvious that they’re kindred spirits in a lot of ways. For Forrester in particular, this is a tough gig – although he’s played Monk for decades, comparisons will inevitably spring up, and it’s safe to say that he gets it, letting the new charts speak for themselves. Was it alto sax player Charlie Rouse who said that “Monk keeps it simple and proper”? Forrester does exactly that. The songs here are a mix of iconic standards along with a couple of unexpected treats: an off-kilter, martial version of the extremely obscure Gallop’s Gallop that comes thisclose to galloping off the cliff, and a fluid, relaxed take of the vacation tableau Worry Later, one of several numbers to feature a stripped-down arrangement, in this case mostly for rhythm section and sax. In that sense, they adhere closely to Monk’s tendency to pare down segments of the songs, especially for solos, even when he was working in a setting larger than a quartet.

The opening track, Brilliant Corners establishes another very effective arrangement strategy here, portioning out pieces of the melody to individual voices, one by one. The title track gets a slightly more straight-up swing treatment than the original, soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston contributing spot-on, blithely wary atmospherics. By contrast, Teo gets a bizarrely effective trio arrangement – most of it, anyway – with boomy surf drums and scurrying Don Davis alto sax. Pannonica maintains the lyrical feel of the original while adding a long, deliciously swirling, lush outro; Evidence substitutes dual and trio sax riffage in place of the suspiciously blithe latinisms of Monk’s version.

We See is redone as a funky shuffle with big grinning solos by Davis and bassist Dave Hofstra; likewise, Bye-Ya also funks up the original without losing any of its catchiness. The single most gripping arrangement here, Off Minor, finds its inner noir core and dives deeply into it with a spine-tingling series of handoffs as the saxes go up the register in turn, one by one. Likewise, Mysterioso goes cinematic with big sax swells, syncopated duo voicings and a creepy march out. The album winds up with a neat version that makes short work of Epistrophy: originally a boogie blues, they turn it into a little diptych, moving from echoes of Coltrane to a smooth swing with more of the tasty soprano/baritone tradeoffs that occur throughout this almost infinitely surprising album.

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February 8, 2011 Posted by | jazz, Music, music, concert, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Very Devious News: The Microscopic Septet Is Back in Print!

There has never been a more devious band than the Microscopic Septet. You may consider yourself a bon vivant, but until you have danced – or at least wiggled in your chair – to the Micros at 2 in the morning, you are only a pretender. These two double cds comprise their complete recorded work through 2007: reportedly, there is also an album of all-new material on the way. You may know these guys from the theme to NPR’s Fresh Air, which their pianist Joel Forrester wrote in the early 90s. As purveyors of good times, exuberant wit and extremely subtle satire, their only real competition is genre-blending baritone sax-driven instrumentalists Moisturizer. Like that band, many of the Micros’ songs – and they are songs, in the purest sense of the word – have a narrative feel. They could have been the Spinal Tap of jazz – and in a sense they are – but they’re so much more. A typical number could start out as a slow blues, go doublespeed with a swing beat, morph into dixieland for a minute or two, build to a latin breakdown and then go out on a suspense film motif. When they first appeared on the New York scene in 1980, audiences didn’t know what to make of them. Were they fake jazz? A spoof? A straight-up swing band that couldn’t resist a good joke? All of the above is more like it. By comparison, the early Lounge Lizards were conservative.

In a terrific stroke of good fortune, Cuneiform Records has reissued the Micros’ complete recorded works on two double cd’s, Seven Men in Neckties and Surrealistic Swing. The first comprises their first album, 1983’s Take the Z Train, along with their lone ep, Let’s Flip! from 1986, in addition to with several outtakes from that session. The second includes their 1986 album Offbeat Glory and their lone cd, 1988’s Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) plus several bonus tracks.

Take the Z Train was recorded live in analog to two-track tape in a Chinatown studio chosen because it housed a piano that reputedly once belonged to Eubie Blake. The digital remastering here is brilliant: it sounds pretty much like the collectible album that the original has become. It’s the band’s defining statement. Influenced by Ellington and Fletcher Henderson’s ornate arrangements, founder and sax player Phillip Johnston added megadoses of his signature wit, and the band followed along, Forrester (who also writes a lot of their material) on piano, Dave Hofstra on bass, Richard Dworkin on drums (both of whom served as Rachelle Garniez’ rhythm section back in 90s), Dave Sewelson (later of the Sewelsonics) on baritone sax, Don Davis on alto and John Hagen on tenor. The album has what’s possibly their prototypical song, Chinese Twilight Zone; the spy theme Mr. Bradley, Mr. Martin; the fast, bustling Pack the Ermines, Mary; the latin swing number Kelly Grows Up and the absolutely brilliant True, a previously unreleased outtake that sounds something akin to Sun Ra covering a horror movie theme.

Let’s Flip! and the outtakes that follow it were recorded in concert in Europe. It’s the Micros at their most serious, although their energy is undiminished. In addition to Offbeat Glory, Surrealistic Swing includes two bonus tracks featuring John Zorn, who was their original alto player. Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) was originally released on Stash Records, who also did the Reefer Madness album; noted jazz critic Will Friedwald hooked them up with the label. Forrester’s latin and tango inflections come to the forefront here, particularly on the delightful Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic Schoolboys, Dill Pickle Tango and Fool’s Errand. Over the course of these four cds, the band steals licks from the Mission Impossible, Peter Gunn and Summer Place themes, rearranges the Ellington classic Harlem Nocturne as a tango, and quotes from everyone from Louis Jordan to the Skatalites to George Michael. In all seriousness, as amusing as all this is, it’s also virtuosic and absolutely brilliant. Although the Micros didn’t go unnoticed by the mainstream jazz world during their 80s heyday, these two rediscoveries ought to vault them to the prominence they so richly deserve.

February 2, 2008 Posted by | jazz, Music, review, Reviews | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment