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Microscopic Septet: Chance Meeting with the Future

By Published: February 7, 2011
AAJ: Here's what's appealing about your newer records: there's a lot of wordplay and levity on the surface of your works, but in your earlier ones there was a degree of darkness and difficulty beneath the surface. You seem to be having a much better time—you seem to be happier people on your recent recordings. Is that the case?

JF: I think that wordplay is preferable to swordplay...

PJ: I don't see any difference in the records myself, though I think like anybody we're a little more at peace with ourselves. I'm surprised that comes out in the records, but if it does, so be it. I think of myself as being at peace with not being at peace with myself.

JF: And as for me, I have never been at peace with myself but I'm at far greater peace with The Microscopic Septet than I ever have been... It's also the case, during that hiatus you spoke of, I got into playing for silent films in Paris. And perhaps my peace with The Microscopic Septet these days has to do with my treating the band as if they were a wonderful silent film, that I'm helping to accompany.

AAJ: You're the ego of the band...

JF: The superego... Phillip is the true leader of this band, I'm just the eminence grise.

AAJ: Speaking of Freud, what role does the intuition, or "primary process," play in your creative work—as opposed to strict musical theory? I know you are precisionists and very deft artists on your instruments, but there's also a lot of wordplay and language games in your titles—when you're coming up with pieces do you think of them theoretically, or is it more spontaneous?

JF: I can say personally that I very seldom start with an idea. Generally speaking a tune announces itself in my head, and if I hear it in my head being played by The Microscopic Septet then it ends up being programmed to the band.

PJ: For me kind of the opposite is true, I start with the idea and then I find a tune that expresses the idea.

JF: We're poles apart!

PJ: Two opposite sides of the coin... But I do think that the gestalt of the tune is a very intuitive thing: the birth of that I idea—ideas and intuition, intellect and emotion, are not two separate things, each is a component of the other. So it's kind of a false dichotomy to separate it that way. The moment in which an idea occurs is an emotional, intuitive flash, and then comes the work of constructing the pieces that put it together and make it work.

JF: In fact for me, I agree completely with Phillip's analysis and say that oftentimes I have the feeling—and of course it's an illusion, but it's certainly an instrumental one—that the tune that I'm hearing exists, whole and complete, somewhere else, and that my job is to translate that into our reality.

AAJ: Now in your music, you're very firmly in the driver's seat but you're also stepping on the gas and having a joyride. It's funky... which doesn't have to mean a heavy syncopation as in James Brown
James Brown
James Brown
1933 - 2006
, but a mood and a swinging feel.

JF: For me, something synonymous with being funky, is being elemental. I think Phillip and I are both emotional beings, and so is everyone at base.

AAJ: Roots-oriented?

JF: Uncomplicated, in an elemental sense.

PJ: There's a number of things going on in the music. That's one of them. I certainly would say that's one of the most important ones.

JF: I would say that we don't let our brains get in the way.

PJ: If the music doesn't swing, or depending on the style of tune, do whatever it does, then everything else falls apart.

AAJ: So you're very rooted in Duke Ellington... Would he be your pivot point? Or do you have a pivot point in the big band world?

PJ: Well, Ellington is certainly; Monk and Ellington—maybe Mingus: those three are very important figures for us in terms of a band sound.

JF: Let's include Jelly Roll Morton and his ensembles, too. All four of those guys.

AAJ: What about the name of your band: it seems you are putting a microscope on big band work and seeing how it works on a micro level, a cellular level...

JF: That's perceptive.

PJ: My standard for a band name is that it should be able to be interpreted on multiple levels. For example, I think one of the best names ever for a band is Material, which was a rock band from the '80s. Material can mean so many different things, that have to do with music or don't... The Microscopic Septet—part of it was just kind of joke about just being the opposite of a traditional big band: a big band is big, we're microscopic. Once you live with it a while it has a number of other different meanings that only rise to the surface over time.

AAJ: Now, Surrealistic Swing (Cuneiform, 2006) is the title of one of your two-fer reissues. Who came up with that?

PJ: We didn't make that up, somebody said that in a review. When we went to make the reissues I couldn't find the review but it was from the '80s and I thought it was a great description of what we did. So is Seven Men in Neckties (Cuneiform, 2006), for that matter...

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