If you were a cool guy who loved jazz in the 1980s, then the Microscopic Septet was your thing, your special band—the guys who somehow proved that all those years listening to Thelonious Monk hadn’t been dorky after all. Here, after all, were seven hip cats—guys who lived in New York City fer crissakes!—who were somehow into all that “old music” but also had some cutting edge credibility. They played at happening downtown spots like The Danceateria and the Knitting Factory, but—they swung!
It was a weird and heady time to get hip to jazz. It seemed as though the whole historical cycle of the music had already passed—from traditionalism, through modernism, into atonal-freak-out-avant-gardism. What more was there to do? And so, just barely aware that hip-hop was doing the very same thing over on the pop side, you began to see creative recombinations of the past as the post-modern way to go. Give me a little Lunceford with my Monk, and then ladle on some Eric Dolphy, please. Sun Ra on the side, if you don’t mind… Mmm-mmm: tasty.
That was the “Micros.” Somebody called it “Surrealistic Swing,” but Micro-music was always more collaged than surreal—a po-mo patchwork that concentrated with a determined fire on certain pet niches. Personally, I heard it as a gloss on the 1950s—leftovers from the swing era, fused with Latin music, plus some seriously jumpin’ jive. Like Basie and Ricky Ricardo smoked dope together, then hired Monk to play piano, all with the intent of getting Lucy to take off her top. Something like that, anyway.
As you can imagine, then, the Micros haven’t been written up in any of the usual jazz histories—Ken Burns didn’t interview them, alas. Combining too much humor or send-ups to get the jazz academics wagging, yet never really threatening to sell any records, the band broke apart in 1992. If you know them, it’s most likely because Terry Gross and the good people at National Public Radio play their theme at the start of “Fresh Air” every weekday. Terry (married to sensational jazz writer Francis Davis, by the way) has been a huge Microfan since way back when, and just about the last thing the septet did before ending it was to record several themes for the show—all of which are included in this indispensable four-disc history of the band: Seven Men in Neckties/Surrealistic Swing.
The bottom line is this: time has been kind to this antic gang of jazzifying tooters. The band is even better and more musically serious than I remember. It is as if the times finally caught up to the Micros, with heaping doses of jazz musicians finally realizing what this septet knew as far back as Reagan’s inaugural—that jazz lives most fully when it’s celebrating and having fun, dicing and razor-slicing American musical history with aplomb.
The Microscopic Septet consists of a saxophone quartet (soprano, alto, tenor, baritone) plus piano trio, positioning them to sound either nimble like a small band or lush like Dorsey. The leaders and composers were always Joel Forrester on piano and Phillip Johnston on soprano—two cats who had been playing everything in jazz from New Orleans style through honking and squealing—and they recruited musicians of similar catholic taste. Their 1983 debut, Take the Z Train, was an insider sensation—but the kind where the jazz hip-oisie kept saying, “Hey, this could actually be POPular!” The tunes Jelly Rocked and Jelly Rolled. A Sun Ra Arkestra in New Wave suits and skinny ties, the Micros played with historically hip humorousness: tangos and even polkas peeked out. And given that the band initially included an alto player named John Zorn, it’s fair to say that the group spurred some of the genre-shifting explosions that were to come from Naked City, Masada and Zorn’s yet-to-be born Tzadik label.
Hey: these guys were important, plus they might all don a fez and march through the audience while playing.
In these four discs, you’ll find all four of the Micros official releases—Take the Z Train, Let’s Flip!, Off Beat Glory, and Beauty Based on Science—as well as the band’s early tracks (with Zorn) and the “Fresh Air” themes. It’s a healthy serving, but never tedious. Truly, the composing is the star, and so these records are always putting the moves on you, never beholden to long solos or a listener’s tolerance for out-jazz noise. It’s amazing to note that this material covers only a fifth of the Micros’ 180-arrangement live book.
A few examples will help the uninitiated to dig the Micro Way. In “In the Mission” from Off Beat Glory, an almost childlike melody is stated by the alto, first, and then the soprano over a tight funk groove. It seems to be a fairly simple arrangement for the Micros until you realize that the saxophones have begun to alternate in stating the melody—not just a chorus-at-a-time, but a phrase-at-a-time and eventually every single note—and the simple blues line has become syncopated with the groove. For most bands, that would be enough, but the Micros then shift into a Latinized bridge and then they play solos over a straight swing feel. The whole travelogue moves backward in time to return you to the sing-songy original melody, dazzled by the fun of it all.
More wide-ranging, perhaps is “Kelly Grows Up”, one of the previously unavailable cuts from the earliest incarnation of the band (including John Zorn). It starts as a driving swing arrangement featuring each of the four horns, seriatim against the band. The bridge is Ricky Ricardo Time again (a Micros staple), but when solos arrive, it’s yet another shift. John Hagen’s tenor begins with snorts and clucks, then glisses up over a fourth, leading to a raucous solo that you might expect from the World Saxophone Quartet or the Art Ensemble of Chicago. Each soloist steps to the challenge, finds ways to square the swing era motion to the growl of the avant-garde.
There’s infinitely more to report about the music here: the devilish piano solos of Forrester, who is Monkian but also puckishly nimble and also key-rollingly out; the consistently earthy and lush sound of Dave Sewelson on baritone, who seems to be taking a good solo even when he just playing in the ensemble; the seemingly homemade tone of Johnston’s soprano, which is gloriously uninfluenced by Coltrane or Shorter and therefore impossible to get tired of; the basement playroom drumming of Richard Dworkin, which seems particularly to delight in how this band can go from the ‘20s to the ‘90s in the blink of a hi-hat cymbal.
If you listen to the Micros, I bet you’ll find your own favorite moments, your own most-loved toys in this long-neglected closet of jazz fun. Just when you’re tempted to take the band lightly, it plays something gorgeous. Just when the band seems like a novelty act, it plays something original and real.
Just when the Microscopic Septet seemed on the verge of unique success, it disappeared. But in this set (and for some gigs now too, if you can find them) they flicker back to life again, laughing, wearing those fezzes, amazing us again.