The Microscopic Septet: Pioneers Across Jazz Boundaries

Photo: Lars Klove

In the '80s, "The Micros" mixed tradition and avant-garde jazz with impunity and almost got famous doing it. Today they're just playing the blues.

The Microscopic Septet

Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me

Label: Cuneiform
US Release Date: 2017-02-10
UK Release Date: 2016-02-10

The Microscopic Septet, seen at a gig in 2017, will look like this: seven cats "of a certain age" (meaning cavorting over and around the age of 60), hair gray(ing) -- or fled -- fedoras worn without significant irony, suits and ties adorned. Four guys will have saxophones, one an upright bass, another at the acoustic piano only. That's a jazz group with charts before them. Shout the names “Don Redman” or “Jelly Roll Morton", and you will get looks of appreciation. Their new record is subtitled, “The Micros Play the Blues”.

Plainly, some old school jazz is afoot.

Or plainly, that’s wrong.

Getting to Know “The Micros”

If you don’t already know The Microscopic Septet, your first clue that something subversive is going on is clued in with the title of the new album, tellingly a gag: Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me. A goof on the title of the 1966 Richard Farina titular novel, this new collection of hip, witty, surprising “little big band” arrangements from “The Micros” adds to the band’s canon of music with roots that reach from Duke Ellington to punk rock, from Captain Beefheart to classical arrangement.

If you want to get to the heart of The Micros, then the folks you want to talk to are Phillip Johnston and Joel Forrester, men with somewhat contrasting styles who have composed the hundred of tunes and arrangements that defined this band starting from its formation as part of the “Downtown Scene” in late '70s / early '80s New York. Johnston, a soprano saxophone musician who grew up in Queens with a taste for both early jazz and the avant-garde, whether jazz or rock, now has a Ph.D. in composition. Forrester, from Pittsburgh by way of a life-changing conversation with Thelonious Monk, is a pianist whom Johnston describes as "a beatnik and a died-in-the-wool bebopper.

"To tell you the truth,” Johnston confesses, "I thought of the title before we decided to make this a blues album.” Forrester explains that “it's based on the Richard Farina book, which I think I got through just one page of."

The two composers met in New York at a time that Johnston describes as one of those rare moments when "a group of like-minded people come together and egg each other on.” Punk rock had transformed the city’s rock scene in the mid-‘70s, but suddenly there was challenging music of all kinds happening. The Microscopic Septet was made up of players who were at the center of that scene. Johnston co-led a band called The Public Servants that was playing some kind of New Wave music but with a healthy dose of horns -- including alto player (and future Downtown Music icon) John Zorn, as well as fellow Micros Dave Sewelson (baritone sax), Richard Dworkin (drums), and Dave Hofstra (bass). The Micros and the scores of other bands and assemblages they were all playing in would practice and sometimes gig at the legendary “Studio Henry” and, shut out of traditional jazz clubs, found bigger audiences at the Danceteria, a four-story nightclub that would be featured in the film Desperately Seeking Susan (starring Madonna, but also featuring Downtown Scene regulars such as saxophonist John Lurie, guitarist Arto Lindsay, and early punk icon Richard Hell).

As edgy as that scene was, The Microscopic Septet came at their art with a retro angle: wearing suits and fedoras, fetishizing Don Redman and Jelly Roll Morton as much as Captain Beefheart. When I asked if Forrester if the Micros had been a group of pranksters, “out” players who were clothed in a swing costume, his reply was, "If you just reverse that, I think you have us categorized pretty well.” In other words, rather than downtown punks pretending to be jazz purists, they may have been jazz players at heart all along.

Johnston sees Duke Ellington, Thelonious Monk, Charles Ives, and Don Van Vliet as being spiritual cousins, however. "Monk, [saxophonist Steve] Lacy, Charles Ives, or Bernard Herman. They made music that only they could make. The first Captain Beefheart record I hear was Trout Mask Replica, and it just spoke to me and coincided with how I see the world. That’s the same way I felt hearing "East St Louis Toodle-oo" and “Evidence”. For Johnston, the Micros’ eclecticism wasn’t a pose or a duality but the continuation of a grand tradition in which individuality would insist on itself.

The Blues as Meeting Ground

Another thing uniting those artists, of course, is the blues. "Almost all the music that I love has a lot of blues in it,” Johnston explains. "When I hear modern jazz without blues in it, I appreciate it intellectually, but I’m always drawn back to blues. Everything I write has blues in it. Captain Beefheart used blues and combined with more intellectual things.”

And so Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues arrives in 2017 as the continuation of the band’s sensibility. Though these days the fedora cover some heads of grey hair and the “old school”-jazz-plus-atonal-solos formula is no longer novel, it’s made up, mostly, of blues tunes and blues forms, but each one has a playful element.

The opener by Johnston is “Cat Toys”, a popping blues built on a riff that is pure joy, like something you might have heard from the Basie band. Tenor soloist Michael Hashim starts with a light, Ben Webster feeling then turns his tone gruff for the final bars, demonstrating a classic Micros technique: using instrumental tone in a playful and expressive way. "I once heard the Ellington band described as having a saxophone section with four players having entirely different vibrato,” says Johnston. "And the Micros take that even a step further in that our approaches to sound is so different. We’re really interested in the sound of each note. Mike Hashim once said to me, 'I think of vibrato as a deployable resource.’”

The variety of blues themes here, even within a basic 12-bar format, is remarkable. “After You, Joel” is a neat little bop line by Johnston that becomes a series of echoes and refractions in an altered blues form. Forrester gets the first solo, and he reminds us that he is the most traditional player in the band almost as a foil to his partner, who follows him with a funkier, weirder statement. "12 Angry Birds” (ha!) is an ominous theme over a thumping bass lick that becomes the basis for a series of interesting ideas, both rhythmic and harmonic. Again, it’s blues (by Johnston), but you only realize it over time.

Abstraction and Consonance Meet

If the blues is famous for being born at a crossroads, then the crossroads on Been Up So Long, as ever with the Micros, is the intersection of old school swing and the greater freedoms afforded to players by the avant-garde of the '60s and '70s from which these players emerged in 1980.

"When I first started getting into music in high school, maybe 1971, there were two kinds of music I first got really excited about,” says Johnston. "My public library had a great collection of old records: Duke Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, Don Redman, Jelly Roll Morton. And they also had For Alto by Anthony Braxton, one Art Ensemble of Chicago record. At the same time I was getting into Captain Beefheart. These were the kinds of music that got me excited. So my entry into music was through very old jazz and very avant-garde jazz.

"I never though twice about putting those two things together because there was something that spoke to me in both those styles,” Johnston says, "and that led to the creation of The Microscopic Septet.”

You can hear this in tunes written and arranged by both Micros composers. Johnson’s “Blues Cubistico” is a blues set up around a call-and-response “sound" that employs a surprising set of stops to tickle the listener under the ribs. The solo is from baritone master Dave Sewelson, and it wanders free of the pure chords with a combination of drunken pleasure and abstract swirl.

“Dark Blue” by Forrester features a catchy hook, stated first by Hofstra’s bass then picked up by Forrester’s piano and then band within a blues structure. Sewelson plays another weird and wooly statement, then Johnston and Don Davis play a weird and wonderful micro-duet where they wind around each other like two strands of dental floss. At the tune’s end, the whole band plays a set of atonal swirls that gradually come together into a written, harmonized swirl. It’s weird... and you’ll smile.

Monk in the Middle

Between the (apparent) extremes of traditional jazz and free jazz, of course, there are some idiosyncratic masters who are also models for The Micros. Joel Forrester met Thelonious Monk as a young musician and was encourage to do his own thing. Johnston also discovered Monk as he developed. "I started at the two edges, and then, as I became a better musician and got more professional experience, I started working my way more toward the middle. To me, Monk isn’t exactly the middle but more like this weird outlier of psychedelic bebop."

Johnston says that during the development of The Microscopic Septet, the band wasn't thinking through what it would be consciously, but finding it "through making music, trying to process all that information. And not just traditional jazz and avant-garde jazz but Latin music and Mingus and rock ’n’ roll. It all went in there.

Johnston’s “Don’t Mind If I Do” is the Monk-iest thing on the disc, set to a straight 12-bar blues. Does it swing like mad? Yes, please. Does Don Davis flip from Johnny Hodges creaminess to a Lee Konitz-ian feathered freedom? Yes again. Also, Monk-ian is “Simple-Minded Blues”. Since this is The Microscopic Septet, it is, naturally, elliptical and not simple at all. Starting with a freely improvised section for horns, it then becomes an offbeat blues that uses crisscrossing lines to weave together a strange, slightly Thelonious-friendly blues theme by Forrester.

The other clear theme in this music is a quality that jazz rarely specializes in: humor.

Music as Wit

As you listen to “When It’s Getting Dark”, you’re likely to hear it as a '60s TV theme, built on a heavy blues lick and a rock beat -- one part Get Smart and one part Adam 12. But what makes it “funny” is not just reference but the sense of surprise built into the arrangement by Johnston.

"Comedy comes in many forms,” muses Johnston. "To me what generates humor in music is the element of surprise, and I try to build that into almost all my writing. You lead the listener to expect one thing, and then something different happens. The listener sees that he’s been tricked and realizes how things can go a different way.

“One of the big things that drew me to [soprano saxophonist and composer] Steve Lacy was his humor, which was subtle, dry, and kind of intellectual. But I combined that with goofier stuff that was very un-Lacy-like, such as Raymond Scott,” says Johnston. "Another band that was amazing at this was The John Kirby Sextet, which had a lot of wit to it. I was combining Lacy with Raymond Scott and John Kirby and Spike Jones."

Forrester’s tunes are also hilarious in different ways. His “Migraine Blues” uses a strong backbeat on the head, and Hashim blows like he's strutting along a bar rail somewhere. Sewelson takes the opposite approach, creeping and coughing, squirting and squiggling, running a groaning punch of rhythm under the return of the three other horns before he blends back into the melody.

“You can’t talk about whimsy without being very serious,” jokes Forrester. "I don’t think about humor as I’m in the writing process, but there's something rebarbative in the relationship among the sax players. Do I write to that? Yes, and that this is part of the joy of the band.” You can hear that again in “PJ in The 60s”, which begins with Sewelson and drummer Richard Dworkin going toe-to-toe in Trane vs. Elvin style free jazz duet ... until the tune shirts gears into a different ‘60s style groove: that of a hip chart that could have been written by Marty Paich (but was written by Forrester). This one features some wonderful Johnston playing in alternation with the baritone. Johnston has an utterly unique soprano approach: full of air, sometimes tremulous, always utterly vocal in its approach.

The strangest, most disorienting Forrester arrangement on Been Up So Long, however, is Forrester’s version of “Silent Night”. He explains its presence on a blues album this way: "I’ve always thought of it as a blues. I can’t even tell you why. Before ever hearing the blues, I would have heard 'Silent Night'. I understood the emotion of it but was unsatisfied by it. Then when I got into the blues, it just seemed natural to me that tunes that were pushing me in the direction would ask me to convert them into a blues."

It's like nothing you’ve heard before. Not only are the harmonies novel, but the pianist has also entirely rewritten the melody, even as the shape of the melody remains utterly that of “Silent Night”. It’s weird, off balance, original, beautiful, not in any one key, and then the solos are played over a minor blues. And it works. "When working on it,” Forrester says, "I didn’t write it out in a particular key, so all the sharps and flats in it are ‘accidentals'. I didn’t know where I was going with it!"

A Microscopic Septet for the 21st Century

In many ways, what The Micros were doing back in the ‘80s would take other groups decades to figure out an emulate. But still, once Phillip Johnston had moved to Australia, why put the group back to together again? And how does that work?

"We all had a longing to make this kind of music again,” Forrester explains. "It was an impulse we weren’t satisfying in our other projects. I call it a zombie band because it only comes back to life when Phillip and I are on the same continent. The thing that made the band interesting in the first place and the reason it lasted this long is that we never stopped composing for it. We would get together once a week and then have a gig where we could try out new material. What was special about the band was that we were always playing in public together. We would modify the music based on the way it sounded in public, not people’s reaction to it as much as how it sounded to us. We can’t do that now.”

"Back in the '80s, we had a gig every week and rehearsed every week too,” recalls Johnston. "We got extremely tight by playing all the time and adding new tunes. Now I have to fly in from Sydney for a week, we have one rehearsal, and then we do a gig. And became clear that we couldn’t just play the old music but had to make new music, too. So we evolved this system. I'd come two or three times a year. One time we’d work on a bunch of new music once we rehearse and play a gig, the next time we’d record, the third time we’d play a CD release gig. But it’s not the same as when you’re playing every week."

And so the Microscopic Septet plays on, grayer and less often, but still onward. Looking back to their peak of activity, Johnston recalls a moment that almost was.

"It almost felt like jazz was going to expand its audience at that moment. But then it didn’t really happen. Why didn’t the music break out? You can find certain events, but I take a more fatalistic view of it. With the Micros, it always seemed like we were about to break out, but something always happened. Maybe it just wasn’t meant to happen. I’m grateful that we had the run that we did and we’re still able to do it.

"Even the most avant-garde music can trickle up and influence the popular culture. That’s another reason why it needs to exist and why the people who create that music need to find a way to survive."

Johnston prompted to make the comparison, will admit that The Micros may have been unwitting models for certain “jazz” musicians of today. "If you look at the bands of today, some similar to the kind of band The Micros was back in the '80s. They're combining jazz with funk or hip-hop in the same way that we were combining jazz with Latin music and rock ’n’ roll. The upside for those bands today is that there's no longer such a stigma about music crossing those kinds of boundaries."

Because the Micros crossed them first.





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