Sunday, February 5, 2017

The Microscopic Septet - Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues (CUNEIFORM RECORDS February 10, 2017)

Putting the Blues in the News:
The Microscopic Septet takes the Blues Uptown, Downtown, and All Around on
Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues

What happens when you put the blues under a microscope? When the lens is wielded by the incisive deconstructivists of the Microscopic Septet, the musical odyssey traverses territory that’s disarmingly strange, pleasingly familiar and consistently revelatory. It takes an unusual band to make news out of the blues, and the Micros deliver a gripping investigation of the form on Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues.

The new album continues the Micros’ brilliant resurgence, storming back into action in 2006 after a 14-year hiatus to reissue its old and release new recordings on Cuneiform Records. Since then, the radically old-school new-context combo has continued to evolve, extending its reputation as one of New York’s most ardently inventive ensembles of the 1980s to being recognized as one of the 21st Century’s most accomplished, informed, and iconoclastic jazz groups. Throughout, they maintained their distinctive modus operandi: exploring and unraveling jazz’s myriad strains, the Micros re-weave a century of jazz into modern tunes of equal popular and critical appeal. Since 2006, they’ve collaborated with known cartoonists and/or illustrators for their album art, including Art Spiegelman, New Yorker cover artist Barry Blitt, Australian graphic artists Antonia Pesenti and Keith Lobue. The Micros Play the Blues builds on the band’s longstanding love of that most basic and profound musical form, bringing the same reverently irreverent and insistently playful approach to the blues that has marked the Micros’ music from the beginning.  This album’s cover art is by Kaz, best known for his comic Underworld and his writing for SpongeBob SquarePants.

“We’ve always loved the blues,” says soprano saxophonist/composer Phillip Johnston, who co-founded the Micros with pianist/composer Joel Forrester. “We’ve recorded blues on every record we’ve made. I don’t think there’s anything more sophisticated than the blues. Our only fear was that the tunes would sound too much alike, and we made a conscious effort to cast a wide net. Every tune sounds different.

Along with the co-founders, the seven-piece ensemble features largely the same cast of improvisers with which it emerged from Manhattan’s wild and wooly Downtown scene in 1980. Drummer Richard Dworkin, baritone saxophonist David Sewelson, bassist David Hofstra, and altoist Don Davis (who replaced John Zorn in 1981) have all been along for almost the entire Microscopic sojourn, while Mike Hashim came on board for the 2006 reboot, taking over the tenor sax chair from Paul Shapiro (the only Micros spot that’s seen real turnover).

As on previous projects, Johnston and Forrester provide the lion’s share of tunes and arrangements, and they both dig deep into their voluminous catalogs for interesting material. The album opens with Johnston’s late-night cinematic joy ride “Cat Toys,” a piece inspired by Hammond B-3-driven soul jazz and originally written for the credit sequence of a short film about a San Fernando Valley-dwelling space alien with a taste for felines (seriously).

Johnston’s cascading 14-bar “Blues Cubistico” features some brawny baritone sax work by Dave Sewelson, while his cheerful soprano sax intro on “Don’t Mind If I Do” sounds like a rent party picking up steam around 11 pm on a Saturday night. Johnston repurposed “When It’s Getting Dark” from his rock band The Public Servants (which featured guitarist Bill Horvitz, vocalist Shelley Hirsch, and several Micros), and the tune retains its predatory rock ‘n’ rhythm vibe.

“12 Angry Birds” delivers a triumphant verdict on the enduring power of Ellingtonian cadences, as the piece sounds like a forgotten number from the 1927 session on Victor, complete with a deliciously squally soprano sax solo. Long time Micros fans will be delighted to hear tunes that have been in the repertoire for decades but never recorded, like “I’ve Got a Right to Cry.” While not actually a blues, the piece was a 1950 hit for the great Los Angeles R&B band Joe Liggins and the Honeydrippers.

“That’s a tune we did from the very beginning,” Johnston says. “We’ve always played tunes by other people, but didn’t record a lot of them. We have a number of vocal tunes, and we never recorded any of those and I love Dave’s singing on this. ‘I’ve Got a Right to Cry’ isn’t a blues, but it fit in so well with the rest of the album.”

Forrester contributes about half of the album’s tunes, including the sensually slow drag “Dark Blue,” a feature for bassist David Hofstra (who’s walking figure guides the band even when he sits out). The pianist offers a propulsive jazz march with “Migraine Blues,” and designs a deliciously woozy and off-kilter jaunt with “Simple-Minded Blues.” In another utterly surprisingly but entirely sensible move, Forrester turns the carol “Silent Night” into a convincing blues that captures the angst too many people feel as the holidays approach. In fact, Forrester staked a claim to the song at a Christmas party where he “took it into my head to derange Silent Night, which has always struck me as close to the blues,” he says. “During the improvisation the chords were really stripped down. I wanted people to take a more primal approach.”

Whatever the music’s origin or vintage, the Micros put their indelible stamp on each piece, with loose and limber arrangements combining stellar craftsmanship and extroverted improvisation. The blues provide another avenue for the band to explore jazz history while forging a sound quite unlike any other ensemble.

Simultaneously embracing the past and the future makes perfect sense when you consider the fraught time and place that gave birth to the Microscopic Septet. In the early 1980s the New York jazz scene was bitterly divided. Irony-laced Downtown players explored new territory drawing on free jazz, rock, funk and later, Balkan influences. At the same time, other young players, following in the footsteps of trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, defined mainstream jazz by looking backwards to 1950s hard bop and 1960s post bop. Rejecting allegiance to any particular camp or faction, the Micros forged their own path with an ethos succinctly summed up by Johnston: “Break all the rules and respect all the saints.”

Embracing jazz’s populist legacy, the Micros brought Uptown jazz back Downtown, where they made a compelling case that swing could look forward as well as backward. The band adopted a name that playfully alluded to its orchestral palette. As Johnston explained at the time, “The instrumentation is enough to give us a big range of colors and work compositionally in a more expansive way.” But the name also described their compositions, which often distilled the essence of an era within an artfully executed voicing. “Through its command of idiomatic detail,” opined The New York Times, “the group summons the sound of an Ellington orchestra, or the feel of a 50’s rhythm-and-blues band, with a few well-chosen phrases and sonorities.”

The band was built upon the felicitous partnership of Johnston and Forrester, who met in the early 70s and bonded over shared musical aesthetics, humor, and similarly skewed worldviews. Eager to break away from the jazz straightjacket of head-solo-head formats, they honed extended, lapidary jazz compositions that segued gracefully between different themes in a single piece, hearkening forward to forms employed by Sun Ra, Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton. The music drew on the entire history of jazz, as well as polkas, tangos, antic cartoon themes, klezmer, and new wave rock. No matter how eclectic their influences, the Micros always hewed to the band’s prime directive. “It’s gotta swing, whether its Latin or R&B or straight-ahead blowing,” Johnston says. “That’s the foundation of what we do.” 

Prolific composers, Forrester and Johnston had created a songbook of nearly 200 tunes by the time the band called it a day in 1992. During the Micros’ first incarnation they only got around to recording 34 pieces on four albums, which were all released on small labels to an impressive array of critical acclaim. The band’s 1983 debut LP, Take the Z Train, came out on Press Records and featured cover art by San Francisco artist Bill Paradise. “It is as if the entire history of improvisatory music is on parade,” Cadence exclaimed. A live album, Let’s Flip!, followed in 1985, recorded in Rotterdam and released by Dutch label Osmosis Records, which also released 1986’s Off Beat Glory. Stash put out Beauty Based on Science in 1988 with liner notes by “New York School” poet, Ron Padgett, cover art by painter Bob Tuska, and cartoons by Collin Kellogg.

In keeping with the band’s perverse ways, they were reaching a vast new audience when they disbanded. Forrester’s theme song for the long-running NPR show Fresh Air with Terry Gross, which continues to be heard by millions of public radio listeners every day, was introduced in 1990. Cuneiform’s decision to reissue the band’s albums on two double albums in 2006, Seven Men in Neckties and Surrealistic Swing, introduced the band to a generation of jazz fans who came of age in the ensuing years. Featuring striking CD artwork by Pulitzer Prize-winning New York cartoonist Art Spiegelman, (creator of the graphic novel Maus), the History of the Micros albums contain all the music from the four original albums and 11 previously unreleased tracks.

The reception was so positive that the band reunited for a European tour, which led to the Micros returning to the studio for 2008’s Lobster Leaps In, an acclaimed Cuneiform album featuring beloved tunes and overlooked gems from the band’s original book. They followed up two years later with the masterful Monk album Friday the Thirteenth: The Micros Play Monk, illustrated with Barry Blitt’s artwork, and made another major leap back into the future with 2014’s acclaimed Manhattan Moonrise, an album that shows the Micros are still a cutting-edge ensemble forging boldly into old territory. “Neither Phillip nor I want to settle into any definite harmonic groove,” Forrester says “Coming up with an array of the blues is just a means taking the Micros into the next century.”

Cuneiform asked Phillip Johnston [PJ] & Joel Forrester [JF], The Microscopic Septet’s co-leaders/ co-composers, questions about the Micros’ new album.

Tell us about the ALBUM’S NAME: Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play The Blues.
PJ: A pun on the title of Richard Fariña’s 1966 novel, the title speaks to the essential optimism of the Micros’ music, and the paradox that the blues ostensibly a music that is meant to express suffering and longing can as easily express joy, rebellion and boisterous eroticism.

JF: PJ chose the name but I like it because it reflects the Micros' approach to the Blues: to the content, whole hearted; to the form, unfaithful.

Tell us what the music on THIS album means to you, any personal thoughts.
PJ: Blues and jazz have been inextricable since the beginning, and the blues have been a substantial part of the Micros’ repertoire since our beginning. Every one of our recordings contains a blues in one form or another and the blues language is part of the expression of every soloist here. It made sense to devote an entire recording to various expressions of the blues.

JF: I love the music on this recording because it underscores that although our lives have gone in seven differing directions, we can still get together as a band.

The TRACK titles: how did they come about?
PJ: (This information is already in the liner notes)

JF: Nearly each of my titles is a verbal glove that fits snugly over the principal hook of the tune.

How does this album DIFFER from your previous works - and how is it the SAME?
PJ: Different: The CD is different in that it focuses on one particular form–the blues–(like the Micros Play Monk focussed on the music of Thelonious Monk). It also maybe focuses on the soloists a little more.
The Same: It is the same in that Joel and I are writing in the Micros idiom that we have established over the past 35 years or so, combining arrangements which invoke various eras of the history of jazz ensemble writing (Ellington/Mingus/Gil Evans) with other elements from free jazz to R&B and our own personal peculiarities.

JF: We are older than we were. We're thinking younger than we did.

Tell us about the COVER ART.
PJ: The cover art is by the great comix artist Kaz, best known for his comic Underworld, and his writing for SpongeBob SquarePants. Post 2005 Micros cover art has included works by Art Spiegelman, New Yorker cover artist Barry Blitt, Australian graphic artists Antonia Pesenti and Keith Lobue, and this wonderful cover extends that tradition in his own unique style. Check out Underworld online!

JF: Well-chosen as almost always.

What would YOU like the public to REMEMBER about this album?
JF: I'd like the public to recognize that "Silent Night' has always been a blues. 

Do you see your music as part of any musical movement?
PJ: No, not really. I do consider us to be part of a peer group that has continued since our youth, so that would include groups like the Jazz Passengers, Kamikaze Ground Crew, Steve Bernstein’s groups, all of whom are currently performing. While none of us have ever really fit into any movement or style, we have all individually found a place four ourselves in music, and continued to make our own idiosyncratic contribution.

JF: All music can be viewed as commentary. And you can't escape your time. But I think the Micros continue to speak to the present.

Tell us about other interesting projects that each of you are working on outside of The Micros.
PJ: [currently based in Sydney, Australia] I have been touring internationally with my collaboration with graphic artist Art Spiegelman, Wordless!.
We just opened the London Jazz Festival at the Barbican Centre, and recent gigs have included Comicópolis in Buenos Aires, and a 10-city tour of the US. I’ve also been touring my original silent film scores, primarily Lotte Reiniger’s The Adventures of Prince Achmed, in Australia at venues including the Sydney VIVID Festival, the Capital Jazz Project (Canberra), MONA FOMA (Tasmania) and the upcoming Woodford Folk Festival (Queensland). A 2015 residency at John Zorn’s The Stone was also a recent highlight.
I’m doing the Australian premiere of Page of Madness: Suite for Improvisers, in 2017 at SIMA’s Sound Lounge, a large ensemble piece based on one of my silent film scores that premiered at The Stone. I also have a once-a-month residency at Foundry616 in Sydney with a band of great Sydney jazz musicians, which plays (mostly) my arrangements of jazz tunes from the 1920s and 30s, focussing on early Duke Ellington and Jelly Roll Morton.
I’m soon going to start some other new projects but right now I’m focussing on continuing to tour Wordless! and Prince Achmed.

JF: [based in NYC] In January 2017, I’ll be touring all over France. Proudest claim: steady work in a falling New York market for music of our sort. I will have written 2000 tunes, by sometime in 2017.

What do you want to do NEXT / in the FUTURE?
JF: I want to keep playing with the Microscopic Septet. I want people to keep wondering, "How many people are in that band?"

- Joel Forrester & Phillip Johnston, November 2016

1. Cat Toys  (4:33)
2. Blues Cubistico  (2:47)
3. Dark Blue  (6:34)
4. Don’t Mind If I Do  (4:25)
5. Migraine Blues (for Wendlyn Alter)  (4:50)
6. PJ in the 60s  (6:21)
7. When It’s Getting Dark  (4:34)
8. Simple-Minded Blues  (5:43)
9. After You, Joel  (2:28)
10. 12 Angry Birds  (4:26)
11. Quizzical  (5:51)
12. Silent Night  (6:21)
13. I’ve Got a Right to Cry  (3:16)

The Microscopic Septet
Phillip Johnston - soprano saxophone
Don Davis - alto saxophone
Mike Hashim - tenor saxophone
Dave Sewelson - baritone saxophone
Joel Forrester - piano
Dave Hofstra - bass
Richard Dworkin - drums

Tracks 1, 2, 4, 7, 10, 11 by Phillip Johnston © Jedible Music (BMI).
Tracks 3, 5, 6, 8, 9, 12, by Joel Forrester © Way Real Music (BMI).
Track 13 by Joe Liggins © Nanohits Inc (BMI).

Recorded May 24–25, 2016 at Tedesco Studios.
Engineered, mixed and mastered by Jon Rosenberg.
Assistant engineer: Tom Tedesco
Cover Art: Kaz
Photography: Greg Cristman
Graphic Design: Bill Ellsworth
Produced by Phillip Johnston


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