"I know what's on your minds, because it's on our minds, too," saxophonist Phillip Johnston announced from the stage of Joe's Pub shortly into a set by his temporarily reunited Microscopic Septet on Saturday night. "'The Micros aren't as good as they used to be,'" he deadpanned. He added, "I'm here to say, we never were."
That self-deprecating streak ran throughout the commentary that punctuated the band's recreations of charts originally performed circa 1980-1992. I arrived in New York a year too late to catch the Micros, as they were known then, during their original run, but I did attend an earlier reunion at Town Hall in 2000. I wrote a preview piece on the Microscopic Septet's two New York reunion dates for Time Out New York -- and apparently didn't say anything too egregious, since TONY wasn't among the eminent publications singled out for mild chiding during the set.
Opening with an ebullient "Night Train Express," an unofficial theme song penned by non-member Wayne Horvitz, the Micros served up a tight, buoyant set of old favorites, in which Dixieland exuberance, swing sophistication, bop daredevilry and avant-garde boisterousness mingled comfortably with influences from rock, ska, reggae and assorted Latin idioms. As I noted in that preview, the Microscopic Septet stood apart from its downtown NYC peers in a number of ways -- mainly for finding a vitality in jazz wholly separate from the nascent Marsalis-led neoconservative revolution happening uptown, but also because instead of striking an ironic pose, the Micros served up a sort of disciplined whimsy, the likes of which can only be found in the work of the Willem Breuker Kollektief.
Rallied by the release on the Cuneiform label of two double-CD sets that collect all four of the band's albums, plus rare outtakes and bonuses (including several takes on their "greatest hit," the theme pianist and co-founder Joel Forrester composed for the radio series Fresh Air), Johnston came back to New York from his current home in Australia for two shows on Friday and Saturday. The latter, which was the first announced, was packed with friends, family and fans from the group's original heyday. (Having failed to reserve a table space, I was blessed to bump into a friend on the waiting line: poet and food blogger Peter Cherches, who graciously allowed me to crash his party.)
Alto saxophonist Don Davis's sputtering opening solo in "The Lobster Parade" called to mind the signature style of another early Micro, John Zorn; Forrester followed with holy-roller gospel flourishes, while baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson quoted "Hey Jude" at the start of his free-form blurt. Davis floated lazily across the bristling minimalist pulsations in a series of solos during "Second Avenue." Forrester's "Came From Behind" opened like a samba tune with a stuck groove, blossoming into boisterous 7/4 swing. Johnston referred dismissively to a critic's description of his "Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic Schoolboys" as klezmer-influenced (although, it should be stated, that description is included in the band's bio on his website); tenor saxophonist Paul Shapiro abstained from "klezmerity" in his swooning solos.
"Get Lucky" featured tumbling melodies and stop-start accents set to a perky ska rhythm, with a disco-fied piano break. Forrester's "Boo Boo Coming" featured a loping reggae rhythm. During the gnarled rhythmic tangle of "Almost Right," the pianist tossed in a quick, atonal reference to "The Song Is You" in a boisterous solo anchored by the rock-steady beat of bassist David Hofstra and drummer Richard Dworkin. "A Strange Thought Entered My Head" could have been the soundtrack to a boozy Chuck Jones cartoon: a drunken march leading to a series of delirious escapades. The breezy "Lobster in the Limelight" (a vintage performance of which can currently be viewed on YouTube) was followed by another old signature piece, "Take the Z Train," which opened as a mysterious ballad with a handsome solo by Shapiro, transformed into a buoyant strut with another sizzling Davis solo, and ended as a surf-rock blowout with several false finales.
Throughout the evening, Johnston and Forrester offered droll references to the Microscopic Septet's obscurity in one self-immolating quote after another. Such flagellation was certainly amusing, but the rowdy, sold-out audience suggested that the band had in fact succeeded in attracting an audience in tune with its subversive moves. Rushed off the stage at the end of its set, the group retired to a back room where it graciously received its fans -- one of whom, Lee Konitz, was surrounded by admirers of his own.
Frederic Chopin - 24 Preludes, Op. 28; Berceuse, Op. 57; Barcarolle, Op. 60; Piano Sonata No. 2; Impromptu No. 3, Op. 51 - Arthur Rubinstein (RCA)
Frederic Chopin - Ballades Nos. 1-4; Scherzos Nos. 1-4 - Arthur Rubinstein (RCA)
C.P.E. Bach - Mache Dich Auf, Werde Licht; Danket dem Herrn - Simone Kermes, Lydia Vierlinger, Markus Schäfer, Klaus Mertens, Vienna Chamber Choir, Wiener Akademie/Martin Haselböck (ORF)
Alvin Curran - Songs and Views of the Magnetic Garden (Catalyst)
Luciano Berio - Formazioni; Folk Songs*; Sinfonia** - Jard van Nes*, Electric Phoenix**, Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra/Riccardo Chailly (London)
Ralph Vaughan Williams - Quick March - Sea Songs; Five Variants of "Dives and Lazarus"; Symphony No. 7, "Sinfonia Antartica"* - Linda Hohenfeld*, Philharmonia Orchestra/Leonard Slatkin (RCA)
Peter Maxwell Davies - Symphony No. 8, "Antarctic Symphony" - Bremer Philharmonic/Peter Maxwell Davies (MaxOpus download)