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Microscopic Septet: Chance Meeting with the Future

Gordon Marshall By

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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.

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