Under the co-leadership of pianist Joel Forrester and soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston, the Microscopic Septet made their mark on the Downtown scene in the '80s with a boisterous, genre-busting blend of swing, bebop and avant-garde jazz, delivered with a healthy dose of offbeat humor. Now, after a hiatus of more than a decade-and-a-half, the group once billed as "New York's most famous unknown band" is back. And, if a new album (their first in 20 years) and a March gig at New York's Le Poisson Rouge are any indication, the onset of middle age has done little to cool the band's sense of adventure and appreciation for the absurd.
With most of its original lineup still intact, the septet (four saxophones, piano, bass and drums) sounds remarkably tight despite its long layoff. Lobster Leaps In covers a typically broad range, from the off-kilter R&B of Wayne Horvitz's "Night Train Express" to the wailing dissonance of Forrester's "Money, Money, Money," the Caribbean lilt of Johnston's "Got Lucky" and Forrester's "Disconcerto for Donnie."
At the Poisson Rouge datea double bill with the like-minded avant-rock unit One Ring Zerothe Septet was in top form, mixing selections from the new album with unique arrangements of Monk's "Mysterioso" and Billy Strayhorn's "Johnny Come Lately." Between Johnston's wry between-song patter and the fine, crowd-pleasing solos from everyone (with particular kudos to Forrester and baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson), the Microscopic Septet served notice that they remain one of New York's most distinctive and entertaining groups.
Night Train Express; Disconcerto for Donnie; Lobster Leaps In; Got Lucky; Lies; Life's Other Mystery; Almost Right; Money Money Money; Lt. Cassawry; Twilight Time Zone; The Big Squeeze.
Phillip Johnston: soprano saxophone; Don Davis: alto saxophone; Mike Hashim: tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson: baritone saxophone; Joel Forrester: piano; David Hofstra: bass; Richard Dworkin: drums.
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