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Microscopic Septet: Chance Meeting with the Future

By Published: February 7, 2011
AAJ: What do you like to listen to? Are you strict jazz fiends, or do you listen to rock or classical—what's on your iPod?

The Microscopic Septet performing live at Radio Bremen in 2007.

JF: I'm not quite sure what an iPod is! But at the moment, I'm listening to a whole lot of Carnatic music (South Indian), and also a whole ton of pre-Baroque medieval and renaissance music.

PJ: My interests are quite broad, though quite specific. I listen to 21st century classical music, electronic music, avant-garde jazz, improvised music—I still love jazz from the '20s.

AAJ: Joel, you seem to be the conceptual one, while Phillip, you are the technical... Is there any truth in that?

PJ: I would say I'm the pedantic one, and that comes from being music teacher for 10 years.

AAJ: What about your own education on saxophone? Soprano—that brings up Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
Sidney Bechet
1897 - 1959
sax, soprano
, Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy
Steve Lacy
1934 - 2004
sax, soprano
, John Coltrane
John Coltrane
John Coltrane
1926 - 1967
—I imagine you draw from all of these.

PJ: The people who first drew me to the soprano were Sydney Bechet, and also Johnny Hodges and Steve Lacy. The whole Coltrane thing (I know it's heresy), I appreciate it intellectually but it never really captured my interest. I'm not that interested in the direction he took. I do like Evan Parker
Evan Parker
Evan Parker
sax, tenor

AAJ: On the other hand, you're getting Coltrane through Evan Parker...

JF: I have yet to hear any Coltrane in your playing, Phillip.

PJ: I don't think I'd know how!

JF: On the other hand, I used to have that Slonimsky book, Scales and Melodic Patterns, that Coltrane worked over.

AAJ: How do you balance play and discipline in your work. There's a lot of both... Is there a "house whip"?

JF: This is a band where specific music is composed for sax players. And these sax players want that, and get that. So they're not going to be the rebellious sort. And also, most of the music we write, never has anyone soloed for more than half a minute at a time. They get their egos out in other ways.

AAJ: The solos, even thought they're short, they're very highly thought out and highly wrought: you can hear Lester Young
Lester Young
Lester Young
1909 - 1959
one minute, Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
Albert Ayler
1936 - 1970
sax, tenor
another, and it's a really nice mix.

JF: Thank you.

PJ: The people who we're drawn to, to be in the band, are, like ourselves, people who have a wide variety of interests and can put that into their playing. I think that's what draws us together as musicians.

AAJ: Another thing evident in your songs is a lot of quotes, everything from "I'll Remember April" to "Hey Jude." Are these random, spontaneous, or planned—and do they figure into the compositions as wholes, as motives or motifs, or is it a hodge-podge?

PJ: A little bit of both. Everybody in the band comes from a background of jazz standards, among other things, and that finds its way into their playing, often in witty ways because they're witty soloists—but also sometimes Joel or I will write witty quotes into the fabric of the arrangements (that's something we like to do). A good example is "Lobster Parade" (Seven Men in Neckties (Cuneiform, 2006)), with the quote from "Hey, Jude."

JF: In my arrangement of "Pannonica" (Friday the 13th (Cuneiform, 2010)), I force the tenor man Mike Hashim to quote some song by Cream. The riff was just floating around in my brain.

PJ: "Sunshine of Your Love."

JF: But I wanted to hear it there. And Mike plays it, but he plays it grudgingly—and you can hear that!

AAJ: So you really can be a martinet. You have a vision, and you want it installed.

JF: They can fuck with it, but only so far...

AAJ: By the way Phillip, how did you meet Zorn?

PJ: We met at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. I was on my way to a Jefferson Starship concert and I heard him playing the saxophone and we started playing together that day... This would have been about 1974.

AAJ: When did you pick up the sax?

PJ: I took piano lessons when I was a kid, and it was in high school that I decided I wanted to play sax and so I rented one; and I got the Jimmy Dorsey Saxophone Method Book and started practicing. I didn't take any lessons until I'd been playing for about five years. I wish I had.

AAJ: Maybe it contributes to the uniqueness of your style that you had to teach yourself?

PJ: For better or for worse...

AAJ: What's your musical background, Joel?

JF: I had a very strange German piano teacher in Pittsburgh when I was a kid, a man named Henry A. Volz. And Volz mostly gave me his own compositions to play. And I cursed him when I was a teenager and met other pianists who had better chops. But on the other hand he really prepared me for my life as a jazz musician. For example, I never just played a lesson for him, I had to bow to him and then sit at the piano and perform. And then he would applaud.

He also worked out a sweetheart deal with the elementary school so that I would play for the assemblies. Actually, it was a way of his getting more students, I realize now, but what it meant for me is that I've always played before the public. Moreover he stressed interpretation. He didn't care about my making mistakes, but rather playing as I actually felt.

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Download jazz mp3 “Lobster Leaps In” by The Microscopic Septet