A nearly brassless little big band and a guitarless R&B group all at the same time, the Microscopic Septet was to the 1980s New York Downtown scene something of what the Art Ensemble of Chicago was to its own home town. Both bands were steeped in and respectful of the jazz tradition, but both deconstructed, recalibrated, juggled and played around with its component parts to create affectionate, often witty new amalgams of the oldand intimations of the future.
The two-disc Seven Men In Neckties collects the Micros' immortal, mind-expanding but long unavailable, first two albumsTake The Z Train (Press Records, 1983) and the live Let's Flip! (Osmosis Records, 1985)along with previously unissued, contemporaneous material.
If anything, the Micros addressed an even broader cultural canvas than prime time AEC. As a jazz band rooted in swing and jump jive, albeit heavily mutated versions, Great Black Music (as the AEC dubbed the tradition) loomed large in the Micros' gumbo. But so did plain old Great Music from all corners of the 20th Century. Country & western, R&B, rock and roll, salsa, klezmer, bop, Dixieland, lounge jazz, minimalism, film noir, barrelhouse and free improvisation were all grist to the Micros, who frequently stirred three or four of these seemingly disparate ingredients into the same pot.
Would the AEC have segued from thoughtful and layered evocations of Fletcher Henderson into a berserk spin on Henry Mancini's "Peter Gunn Theme," as the Micros do on "Take The Z Train?" Probably not. The Micros certainly had a better developed sense of the ridiculous than just about any jazz outfit before or, so far, after them. Unlikely, but in the event spot on, collisions like that of Henderson and Mancini are peppered throughout the discs.
The lasting appeal of the music begins with the band's attitude. Soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston and pianist Joel Forresterwho each wrote roughly half of the band's bookdidn't make fun of the music that went before them, or was happening on other scenes around them, they made fun with it. There was a jokey, prankster side to most of what the Micros played, but once you've got the joke, there's still a stack of fine jazz to be enjoyed. The same goes for the soloists. They keep it antic, but they keep it real too.
Seven Men In Neckties is the first of two volumes in Cuneiform's Microscopic Septet reissue programme. The second volume, Surrealistic Swing, collects the band's 1986-1990 recordings. Word is the band has reformed for performances in the US and Europe. Will they still be crazy after all these years? That's probably a safe prognosis.
Personnel: Phillip Johnston: soprano saxophone; Don Davis: alto saxophone; John Hagen: tenor
saxophone (1:1-8); Danny Nigro: tenor saxophone (1:9-11,2:1-11); Paul Shapiro: tenor
saxophone (1:12); Dave Sewelson: baritone saxophone; Joel Forrester: piano; David Hofstra:
bass, tuba; Richard Dworkin: drums.