When the legendary jazz pianist Thelonious Monk died in 1982, a flood of interpretation flowed from musicians left behind. Monk had left everyone behind for the bulk of his life, as his playing always forged a forward path. He was a genius in the ‘40s, he was starting to be understood in the ‘60s, and then he was gone, leaving a legacy of tunes that miraculously embody his quirks, joy and difficulty.
In 1982, The Microscopic Septet was just getting going, but they were Monk-ians from the start. Soprano sax specialist Phillip Johnston was finding himself amidst the legacy of soprano-ist Steve Lacy, a critical modern acolyte of Monk. Pianist Joel Forrester was navigating the craggy intervals of the master’s solo style. And both were composing smartly Monk-ian tunes of their own. Their new band, the four saxophones plus rhythm that New Yorkers came to call “The Micros”, developed a reputation as danceable jazz pranksters. Monk would have approved.
If you went to see The Micros in their prime—say 1982 to 1992—you surely would have heard one of Johnston’s or Forrester’s Monk arrangements. But the band, in the studio, was known for its own material, so only one Monk tune appeared on the band’s four recordings. The band packed it in come 1992.
But 2006 brought the reissue of the band’s catalog, followed by a reunion and 2008’s Lobster Leaps In. The Micros are back? Sheeee-it! Jazz had a chance to laugh again, to swing and shout at the same time.
Now we have yet another new—or sort of new—document from Johnston/Forrester and crew: a set of their Monk arrangements, freshly recorded with the latest version of the band. They sound great. If you don’t know them (or don’t know Monk), then dig in.
The charm of The Micros has always been their joyous, unself-conscious collage of different jazz styles. They are a kind of sleek swing band one moment, a Latin jazz group the next, a group of ‘60s avant-eek-onkers just a moment later. And it’s all played with the kind of zippity zest that keeps things entertaining. That is the just the treatment that Dear Ol’ Thelonious gets here.
So “Pannonica” starts out with a stuttering piano/drums figure before settling into a slowly swinging ballad. After the solos, the horns join the initial figure, and then the final minute becomes a patterned saxophone freak-out that resembles a horde of birds settling in for the night. “Wee See” becomes a loping tango, and “Bye-Ya” gets a ringing Latin workout as well, with each improvised section carrying a different kind of groove: a thrilling baritone solo by Dave Sewelson over David Hofstra’s bass, piano and alto (Don Davis) in duel, swing underneath the soprano and Mike Hashim’s tenor. “Friday the Thirteenth” is stated originally over a drum feel defined by only sticks hitting sticks, with baritone sax playing the bass line.
All this creativity in approaching a quirky composer! But is there something that binds it all together? Is there something that makes it “Microscopic” at its core beyond its wide-ranging randomness? This is the $9,000 Micro-question.
First, it’s fair to say that the Microscopic Septet, at its core, sits atop a traditional piano trio sound. Forrester, Hofstra, and drummer Richard Dworkin play much more like a Nat Cole group or a Red Garland trio than they do like McCoy Tyner, Herbie Hancock, or any of the hot hands of today. This is critical. On a tune like “Brilliant Corners”, the basic rhythm groove is tidy and light, precise but not explosive. The move from a stroll to double time and then back to a more a-rhythmic feel under the head feels like clockwork. Even on a tune like “Gallop’s Gallop”, where the trio enters with a military beat, they play with a neatness that never evolves into the fiery.
But on this same tune, we hear the other distinct element of The Micros. The reed section—the rarely heard collection of one each of soprano, alto, tenor and baritone—plays with a controlled freedom. Johnston’s soprano solo has a casual looseness that is just the opposite from the style of the rhythm section. On “Teo”, the first solo by tenor man Hashim, it is outright growling and honking, even as Dworkin’s accompany drum groove is perfectly circumscribed and planned. This tart/sweet quality is a great deal of what gives this band, and this recording, its sense of play.
What The Micros lack, perhaps, are truly distinctive soloists. Even the leaders, Forrester and Johnston, do not truly sweep up the listener in the arc of their improvisations. Don’t get me wrong—this is a band that can blow, but it’s rare that more than one or two statements on a Micro record really seem to tell a compelling story or truly sweep you up in excitement. All the tunes on Friday the Thirteenth are around five minutes long, with multiple soloists on most tunes, so the musicians don’t stretch out much—chicken or egg? Either way, it confirms that The Microscopic Septet is best thought of as a composer/arranger showcase.
In that role, The Micros are ideal interpreters of Thelonious Monk, even if their tribute comes so many years after the fact. It’s a nice, quirky piece of work, just like it ought to be.