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Microscopic Septet: Chance Meeting with the Future


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The Microscopic Septet is all about swing, but swing in a sense extrapolated from the stale, dated pages of the past. Its take on the music of the '30s and '40s is too scholarly to fall off the map as retro, and too deeply felt to be dismissed as a dusty trove of museum pieces. The charts move at the speed of the Coney Island Cyclone, incorporating all that grew out of the world's first love affair with jazz, from Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker to Sun Ra and Albert Ayler.

Like other worthy constituents of Manhattan's "downtown scene," "The Micros" were defined, refined and redesigned by the very shuffle and hustle and bustle that characterize and constitute New York City. At the same time, their music plays on the history of the metropolis and redefines it. By these means, they have formulated a future. Such has been the case with them since their beginning, as time after time they have turned encounters with icons and monuments into templates of reinvention for themselves, and for their times.

Crucial in this line of encounters was pianist and co-leader Joel Forrester's time spent with Thelonious Monk in the mid '70s. Introduced to the master by Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, famed patron of jazz of British origin, Forrester performed for him in the Baroness' home in Weehawken, N.J., on a periodic basis over a stretch of several months. Monk lay in bed all day during these times, but listened to Forrester in the adjoining room keenly—only slamming the door (with his foot) when he didn't like what he heard...

Forrester quickly discerned what Monk liked: he liked what was new, inventive and different. He frowned only upon derivative attempted renditions of his own songs, or florid embellishments meant to impress—or stammering repetitions of the same phrases. The ethic gleaned from this experience is what has driven the Septet since its founding in 1980 by co-leader and soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston, up until its re-formation after a long hiatus, in the mid '00s.

Prolific and inventive, indeed Forrester and Johnston have composed over 180 songs, and winnowed them to a spare 34 recorded over their first four albums. This power to flood a domain, and then zero in on the target of essence, is what distinguishes The Micros. They have located jazz's DNA, exploring the lineage that even the freest and most spacey strains of creative music have with totemic types like Jelly Roll Morton and Duke Ellington; and perpetuate those sonic strands as they split and replicate, combining and recombining, tumbling out of a past that never stops refreshing a future.

All About Jazz: Now, we know Thelonious Monk plays a large part in your history and your work. When you do Monk, then, is it to show Monk in a new light, or, rather, to show yourselves in a new light?

Joel Forrester: If I had to choose between those two, I would say what we're aiming for is more of a synthesis that shows our gratitude for Monk's existence... and yet, our joy in being able to express ourselves.

Phillip Johnston: Well, that's a much more articulate thing than I was going to say, which is, neither. We just like the music!

JF: I agree.

AAJ: Now, in recent Ken Dryden piece for the New York City Jazz Records, the two of you had conflicting stories as to how you met. Based on those recollections, it seems that Joel, you're the imaginative one and Phillip, you're the factual one...

JF: No—I'm the blatant liar, with poor memory!

PJ: We were both living on East 10th Street. Joel lived between First and A, and I lived between Second and First; and as Joel was walking by, he heard me playing Monk's "Well, You Needn't," and came up to my apartment and came in.

AAJ: So that is a true story.

PJ: The story is definitely true. The only disagreement seemed to be what block it was on!

AAJ: That's a hard thing to remember in New York, with all the numbers...Now, you have four CDs available these days: The two Cuneiform twofers, and Lobster Leaps In and Friday the 13th. What happened between those two periods? Were you still active throughout the '90s?

PJ: No, not as The Microscopic Septet. In 1992, we broke up, and Joel was playing with his quartet, I was recording with The Transparent Quartet, with Big Trouble and doing film music. It was when Cuneiform reissued our old LPs from the '80s that we got the band back together just to promote the release of the records. At that point I was already living in Sydney. But we enjoyed it so much we decided to keep doing it, and I've been coming back about twice a year and performing, and/or recording.

JF: We love the fact that were playing together again, some; and so we've held Phillip's feet to the fire and forced him to come back.

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, 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...

AAJ: Your titles themselves are often surrealistic. Some of them even sound like anagrams. What about "Pack the Ermines, Mary"?

JF: That's a direct quote from William Burroughs. It means, "Let's get out of town, right now!"

AAJ: Do you read surrealist literature, is that an inspiration for you?

PJ: I like it, but into your music you put all the input you've had—personal things, movies, books, television, pop music, jazz—it all comes out in what you do, I think.

JF: I agree with Phillip but I would just add this: about surrealism: those were the first humans, that I know about, to organize a movement around the idea of dreams. And we're sort of living whatever time comes after that... We pay attention to our dreams, but we try to locate our dreams in real life as well.

PJ: So you're saying we're "post-surrealists"?

JF: I don't see us falling into any kind of movement.

AAJ: Your music has a jigsaw quality to it—putting together elements of the great big bands of the past—Monk, Charles Mingus, Ellington, Fletcher Henderson, even Sun Ra—how do you see yourselves fitting as puzzle piece in the music of the future?

JF: I think this: there are basically only two forms of definition: there's restrictive definition, and then there's a kind of liberating definition, one that includes the future. And the first form always involves concepts. But there is no concept of the future, and so what we hope to do, I think, is make music that will live now, and will live later on.

PJ: There's a kind of truism that you often read in the press, which is that at a certain point jazz stopped evolving because the newer forms of music didn't look like the type of evolution that you had in the past. Both in jazz and in classical music basically music history trudged through this death march from tonality to atonality, where when we got to Schoenberg on the one hand and John Cage on the other, or, Albert Ayler and improvised music in the European sense, that that journey was over. And people who have been gauging the development of jazz see no more development because now we've finished that journey. But I disagree with that 100 percent, and I think the times that we've lived through, the last 30 or 40 years or so, have been one of the most interesting and least analyzed or recognized in the history of jazz.

It's going through these side-paths which were passed by on the mad rush to get to atonality, and now people are going back and combining different things, and integrating all the influences of everything that's happened over the last 30 or 40 years into the music, and it's resulted in some amazing music.

JF: At our highest moments in this band, we're not commenting on the future, we're commenting on the future of the future.

AAJ: Well, the idea of recombining elements of past and present brings to mind John Zorn, who played a role in your band early on. What in particular did Zorn bring to the table? Why did you bring him into the band?

PJ: John was one of my best friends, from when we were very young. I brought him into the band because he was somebody I played with. Joel and I played with John a lot before we started The Micros. We had a trio for a while, and a peer group—people like Wayne Horvitz and Marty Ehrlich and Elliott Sharp and Bobby Previte. We played at this place called Studio Henry with all these people and others, and we were all part of a peer group trying to evolve this music forward, and that went in many different directions. Ours is one of them. They took it in their own directions.

JF: And as to what John Zorn brought to our band, I would say he brought his full Zornishness!

PJ: At the very beginning of The Micros we didn't really have an idea of what kind of band it would be. We would just experiment and eventually we decided that the most fruitful thing we could do was to do our own music. But one of the things that John did was write an arrangement for the theme from Barney Miller; he wrote an arrangement of "Tico Tico," a bunch of Sonny Clark tunes. But by the time we made our first record we were already pretty much committed to our own music, so we didn't really follow up on that.

AAJ: On the subject of arrangement and composition you divide it pretty much equally between the two of you, but is there any shared responsibility in the individual songs, or is it strictly divided?

JF: If Phillip brings in a composition, then I usually hear what he's trying for right away, and then add what I have to it; and I'm sure he does exactly the same thing with me. And I love what Phillip does with my compositions. And further, when I write a tune, not only do I think of all four horns and what they bring to it, but almost inevitably each tune I write will have a moment crafted especially for Phillip and what he brings to the table.

PJ: As composers we both do our stuff separately and bring it in as separate pieces. However, I think, certainly on my side, Joel is an influence there and a raw exchange of ideas.

JF: And then they get modified by the band itself.

PJ: We're open to input and so on... I remember when I was in Ohio once, a tune I had written I specifically thought he would like. And he said, "That just sounds like something John and I would write!"

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?

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, Steve Lacy, John Coltrane—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.

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 one minute, Albert Ayler 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.

AAJ: Why did you disband in '92?

PJ: It was basically because we had been doing our thing, for quite a while—we went through this thing over and over again: at that time in the late '80s and early '90s there was a whole rash of signings to major labels of downtown musicians and more avant-garde musicians who were constantly almost getting a great record deal and it kept falling through at the last minute and we could not get a record out. And I have to say, I was feeling extremely frustrated.

Another reason was I wanted to start doing some different things with different instruments and I was very committed to the work I was doing in film scoring in the early '90s.

JF: From my perspective, the decision to put the band on hold for a decade or so, meant the future was allowed to begin for me.

Photo Credit: Microscopic Septet


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