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Microscopic Septet

The music of The Microscopic Septet was the sound of jazz in 20th C. America: all of it, from Ellington to Ayler, bebop to Zorn, Dixieland to experimental, captured in a microcosm. It distilled the essence of jazz as a popular music into a sound that swung, a music that was intelligent, sometimes smart-aleck, and always good clean fun. Optimistic and upbeat, full of innocent confidence, the Microscopic Septet captured not only the sound of jazz, but also the sound - or soundtrack - of 20th Century America. No wonder, then, that when National Public Radio (NPR) needed a new theme song for one of its most popular shows, "Fresh Air, with Terry Gross", broadcast to every home in America, it asked this band to compose the tune and has used it ever since.

Active from 1980-1992, The Microscopic Septet was part of New York's emerging Downtown Music Scene, a diverse group of artists on the fringes of jazz, rock, and improv that would converge in the Knitting Factory when the club opened in 1987. But while the band shared an aesthetic for breaking down genres boundaries with such other Downtown bands as Curlew, Massacre, and Material; shared the goal of creating intelligent music that could be danced to with Curlew, and shared stylistic surface elements (retro sound, stage costumes and attitude) with the Jazz Passengers and Lounge Lizards, the Micros, as the band was familiarly called, neither sounded like nor was directly comparable to any one of the Downtown bands. More inclusive than even the barrier-breaking downtown crowd, the Micros shared elements with all these bands - and more.

During the 1980s, jazz in New York City was split into two distinct scenes. Downtown's jazz scene was unregimented, avant in outlook, and inclusive in scope, often merging with the rock scene and including improvisers, the free-jazz players, and the new jazz-funk/groove-influenced players. Mainstream jazz was headquartered Uptown, where Grammy Award-winning trumpeter Wynton Marsalis was reviving early forms like swing and bebop, enforcing a return to stylistic tradition, and championing jazz as America's new classical music. As Will Friedwald noted "While the two major strains of '80s jazz were "neo-classical" (ala Wynton Marsalis) and the avant garde, the Micros seemed to be doing both at the same time." As NYU dropout and Micros' founder Johnston said: "Break all the rules and respect all the saints." Like Uptown, the Micros played swing music and quoted from the Masters. But they extended swing into the present, bringing free blowing from the lofts and Knitting Factory noise into the dance hall, and introducing the radio age to TV theme songs. As Johnston relayed in an interview with Howard Mandel: "...our music, if nothing else, is definitely jazz...Jazz is something that's always changing, so of course our music is different than the way it was in the Fifties. It incorporates all the things we've experienced."

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Album Review

Microscopic Septet: Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues

Read "Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues" reviewed by Troy Dostert


Since its inception, the Microscopic Septet has endeavored to uphold co-founder Phillip Johnston's motto to “break all the rules and respect all the saints." Coming out of New York's internecine jazz wars of the early 1980s, with avant-gardists and traditionalists each denying the other side's legitimacy, the Micros tried to bridge the divide: showing that respect for the jazz tradition could be combined with a healthy spirit of irreverence and risk-taking. That approach thankfully remains in effect today, as the ...

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Album Review

Microscopic Septet: Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues

Read "Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues" reviewed by Karl Ackermann


Saxophonist Phillip Johnston founded The Microscopic Septet in 1980 when the group briefly counted John Zorn as one of its members. They recorded four albums and were a regular presence in New York's downtown scene before disbanding in 1992. In 2006 Cuneiform Records re-released the four albums leading to the reformation of the group and presently, to their new release Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues.Johnston and pianist Joel ...

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Album Review

Microscopic Septet: Manhattan Moonrise

Read "Manhattan Moonrise" reviewed by Vic Albani


Solo pochi anni orsono, quando mi trovai a scrivere di History of the Micros, i due straordinari capitoli summa summarum di questa band originariamente attiva dal 1980 al 1992 e tornata alle incisioni dopo più di un decennio di pausa creativa e produttiva agli inizi del nuovo millennio, mi trovai a raccontare delle classiche situazioni underground newyorkesi ove, formazioni del genere prosperano per anni nel più glorioso anonimato. Gli anni passano ma la situazione non cambia: l'onnivoro ...

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Album Review

Microscopic Septet: Manhattan Moonrise

Read "Manhattan Moonrise" reviewed by Glenn Astarita


In the 80s, the band engendered a cagey slant on mainstream swing and then morphed into the risk-taking New York downtown scene, eventually garnering widespread attention and sell-out crowds at the Knitting Factory and other hip venues. They regrouped in 2006, carrying the torch for what has become a singular sound, ingrained in classic jazz stylizations, bop, funk, and the free-jazz domain. Known for its quirky deviations, razor-sharp horns arrangements and melodic hooks, the septet's spunkiness and tightknit overtures align ...

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Album Review

The Microscopic Septet: Friday the Thirteenth: The Micros Play Monk

Read "Friday the Thirteenth: The Micros Play Monk" reviewed by C. Michael Bailey


If two creative star trajectories were ever meant to cross, it was those of pianist/composer Thelonious Monk and the Microscopic Septet. Sure, Steve Lacy and Mal Waldron had a pretty good Monk gig going, and Sphere was a great tribute band lead by Monk's longtime tenor saxophonist Charlie Rouse (followed by Gary Bartz). But, the Micros...here are seven guys who really have Monk under their skin. Documented on previous recordings, many sides reprised on Seven Men in Neckties (Cuniform 2006) ...

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Interview

Microscopic Septet: Chance Meeting with the Future

Read "Microscopic Septet: Chance Meeting with the Future" reviewed by Gordon Marshall


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 ...

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Album Review

The Microscopic Septet: Friday the Thirteenth - The Micros Play Monk

Read "Friday the Thirteenth - The Micros Play Monk" reviewed by Glenn Astarita


One of New York City's favorites, The Microscopic Sextet's 30-year run has seen a dormant period, but has been revitalized via its affiliation with Cuneiform Records. With its fourth release for the label, Thelonious Monk's influence and eternal spirit yields a wittily entertaining facelift via the septet's customary off-center expansions on bop and swing, to complement the intermittent jiggle to the avant-garde. Its musicians are true to form with their holistic stance on Monk's discography, and, thankfully, they coat the ...

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Recordings: As Leader | As Sideperson

Been Up So Long It...

Cuneiform Records
2017

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Manhattan Moonrise

Cuneiform Records
2014

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Friday The 13th

Stash Records
2011

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Friday the...

Cuneiform Records
2011

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Friday the Thirteenth

Cuneiform Records
2011

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Friday the Thirteenth...

Cuneiform Records
2010

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Lobster Leaps In

From: Lobster Leaps In
By Microscopic Septet

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