The Microscopic Septet – History of the Micros, Vol. 1 & 2, “Seven Men in Neckties;” “Surrealistic Swing” – Cuneiform Records

by | Nov 15, 2006 | Jazz CD Reviews | 0 comments

The Microscopic Septet – History of the Micros, Vol. 1, “Seven Men in Neckties” – Cuneiform Records 236/237 (2 discs: 67:13, 65:42) *****:
The Microscopic Septet – History of the Micros, Vol. 2, “Surrealistic Swing” – Cuneiform Records 238/239 (2 discs: 48:41, 67:32) *****:

“The best NYC band that hardly anybody has heard of” and “Lawrence Welk on acid” are just two of the descriptions which have been applied to this crazy aggregation which was part of New York’s emerging downtown music scene from 1980 to 1992.  In spite of the above description, nearly everyone has probably heard them after all, because they were hired by NPR’s popular interview show Fresh Air to create a theme song for the daily program, and they have used it ever since – broadcast to every home in the U.S. That makes it the most-aired jazz work in the world, for the last 28 years.

The former members must be overjoyed at this beautifully carried out retrospective on their work.  The four CDs are reissues of four of their early albums: Let’s Flip, Take the Z Train, Off Beat Glory, and Beauty Based on Science (The Visit).  In addition, each one has several bonus tracks of alternates, outtakes and previously unreleased material.  Cuneiform commissioned avant cartoonist Art Spiegelman (“Maus”) to create the cover art for both retrospective albums. They’re done in the style of the album art for some of the Sauter-Finegan Band LPs of the 50s.

Founder of the band Phillip Johnston, who now scores film, theater and dance presentations as well as composing and arranging for radio and TV, described in an interview at the time what the Micros were about:
“…jazz went thru a period of being an entertaining, popular music as it was in the 20s, 30s and 40s, to bop and to eventually being this serious cult music. Jazz for us is more than that – it is music we love and want to have fun with, which should not take away from our real reverence for the music.”

And fun they do have. There are elements of Spike Jones and Frank Zappa in much of their work. Another comparison was Charles Mingus playing Willem Breuker – or vice versa. Nearly all their tunes are originals – mostly by Johnston or co-leader and pianist Joel Forrester.  I think one reason the sound of the Micros appeals to me so much is that I’m a nut on all-sax quartets and sextets, and the Microscopic Septet is really a saxophone quintet with piano, bass and drums added. Don’t misunderstand that this is a loft jazz, free jazz type of ensemble; not so. (Even though John Zorn was one of their members.) The Micros are quirky and there are avant elements but it also very accessible.  Their mixtures of swing, bebop, lounge jazz, trad jazz, New Orleans Second Line, tangos, you-name-it, are always intelligently and wittily put together and played with great gusto. Someone else observed that there is both “froth and substance” in the Micros’ music.  I’d go thru my picks of some of the tracks but I think just the titles listing below will give a good idea of where the Micros are at. I had one of the four CDs and the sound on the reissue is an improvement.

 – John Henry

Disc: 1- Take the Z Train
1. Chinese Twilight Zone
2. Wishful Thinking
3. Take The Z Train
4. Mr. Bradley Mr. Martin
5. Kelly Grows Up
6. Pack The Ermines, Mary
7. I Didn’t Do It
8. A Strange Thought Entered My Head
9. Party At PJ’s
10. Bee Beep
11. True
12. Fresh Air Theme

Disc: 2 – Let’s Flip!
1. The Lobster Parade
2. Second Avenue
3. Why Not?
4. Let’s Flip!
5. Lazlo’s Lament
6. Boo Boo Coming
7. Johnny Come Lately
8. The Mirror
9. Hoftstra’s Dilemma
10. Women In Slow Motion
11. Hey Wayne

Disc: 1 – Off Beat Glory
1. Brooklyn In he Fifties
2. Baghdad Blues
3. Crepuscule With Nellie
4. In The Mission
5. March Of The Video Reptiles
6. I Saw You In Utah (Idaho)
7. I Am The Police
8. By You, Do You Mean You Or Me?
9. Kelly Grows Up
10. Watching Television

Disc: 2 – Beauty Based on Science (The Visit)
1. Off Color
2. Come From Behind
3. Rocky’s Heart
4. Infernal Garden Blues
5. Waltz Of The Recently Punished Catholic
6. Little Bobby
7. The Dream Detective
8. Lobster In The Limelight
9. The Visit
10. Fool’s Errand
11. Dill Pickle Tango
12. One Room Too Far Away
13. You Know What You Know
14. Fresh Air Theme (Gulf War)
15. Fresh Air Theme (Happy Twin)


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