The Microscopic Septet's founder Phillip Johnston frequently posits that the band's music, much of which was penned by him, is "avant-garde . It can be quirky, is often fun to hear and it just manages to swing, but it is anything but groundbreaking.
The Micros' music is a frantic hodgepodge of styles cleverly entwined into facile arrangements, overlaid with a big band jazz sound and intellectually dressed up with geekily funny titles. It is lighthearted and lightweight and it can be mildly exhilarating in the same way that a good They Might Be Giants tune can be. It's got the kind of adolescent smarts that tries to hide its earnestness under a thin veneer of hipness.
The Micros, however, are now far from young. Their music, nothing to be taken too seriously when it was created (in the mid '80s and in the '90s), has a goofiness that may appeal to those who feel jazz tends to be too gravely self-important. The Micros are, inevitably, sometimes compared to the great Willem Breuker Kollektief, but this is unfair to the latter, who have been around much, much longer, plainly possess a greater degree of gravitas (underneath the wild playfulness) and put on better live shows to boot.
Speaking of live shows, the Micros delivered at a packed Joe's Pub in early December. The shows were in support of these two double CD sets, which purport to contain the band's entire recorded output. Live, the Micros belt out the tunes with reliable tightness and made-for-NPR stage banter, but the rhythm section lacks power and Johnston's soprano sound seeped limply out of the bell. Don Davis' alto solos delivered some needed heat and Dave Sewelson's baritone solos were fiery, creative highlights. The crowd seemed happy, as only crowds who've been spared anything heavy or 'avant-garde' can be.
Tracks and Personnel
Tracks: CD1: Brooklyn In The Fifties; Baghdad Blues; Crepescule With Nellie; In The Mission; March Of The Video Reptiles; I Saw You In Utah (Idaho); I Am The Police; By You, Do You Mean You Or Me?; Kelly Grows Up; Watching Television. CD2: Off Colour; Come From Behind; Rocky's Heart; Infernal Garden Blues; Waltz Of The Recently Punished Catholic Schoolboys; Little Bobby; The Dream Detective; Lobster In The Limelight; The Visit; Fool's Errand; Dill Pickle Tango; One Room Too Far Away; You Know What You Know; Fresh Air Theme (Gulf War); Fresh Air Theme (Happy Twin).
Personnel: Phillip Johnston: soprano saxophone; Don Davis: alto saxophone (CD1:1-8, CD2:2-15); John Zorn: alto saxophone (CD1:9,10); Paul Shapiro: tenor saxophone (CD1:1-8, CD2:1-15); John Hagen: tenor saxophone (CD1:9,10); Dave Sewelson: baritone saxophone; Joel Forrester: piano; David Hofstra: bass, tuba; Richard Dworkin: drums.