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The Microscopic Septet: Surrealistic Swing

Nic Jones By

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The two-disc set Surrealistic Swing, volume two of Cuneiform's "History Of The Micros reissue series, is something of an exercise in retrieval. Tracks 1-8 on the first disc are from Off Beat Glory, originally released in 1986 by Osmosis, whilst the remainder are drawn from a previously unreleased session. The second disc is made up of Beauty Based On Science (The Visit) (Stash, 1988), whilst the remaining three tracks are drawn from a seven-inch single that never materialised, plus two versions of a theme. The overall picture thus presented is of a band that served as a kind of antidote to a lot of the overbearingly earnest small-group jazz that was a hallmark of the 1980s—and which still exists in abundance in the present day.

The Micros were an unusually self-contained unit in the sense that most of the compositions they played came from within the ranks, with pianist Joel Forrester producing the lion's share. Happily his work wasn't lacking in character, and in this group he had arguably the best vehicle for putting his music across. "Lobster In The Limelight is an exercise in small-group dynamics enriched by Phillip Johnston's soprano sax, and its buoyancy of spirit makes it clear this band was completely sincere when it came to the notion of having fun.

A general problem might, however, lie in the fact that the balance between composition and improvisation shows a notable bias towards the former. On Johnston's "By You, Do You Mean You Or Me? or Forrester's "In The Mission, this is no problem at all. The writing in both cases has such an abundance of character that one can't help wondering why the players weren't given more of an opportunity to make something of it, especially when the sax section in particular is made up of musicians who had found their own voices and acquired the knowledge on how to apply them tellingly.

None of this alters the fact that this band's outlook on the "tradition" was admirably inclusive, however. Bases like early-'40s Duke Ellington and the Willem Breuker Kollektif are touched here, and the sense of fun that pervades virtually all the music is an end in itself. It's just kind of frustrating that the improvisational fireworks seem to be held in check so often.


Track Listing: 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

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.

Title: Surrealistic Swing | Year Released: 2006 | Record Label: Cuneiform Records


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