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March 2011

The Microscopic Septet
Friday the 13th: The Micros Play Monk
Cuneiform Records

The Microscopic Septet has been around for 30 years, but until recently the band—though influenced by Thelonious Monk from its earliest days—had recorded a grand total of one Monk tune. Now comes Friday the 13th: The Micros Play Monk, an album of 12 Monk covers. It is splendid fun.

Friday the 13th proves, again, that the music of Thelonious Monk is universal, timeless, and open to endless interpretation. Who knew that the bebop pianist’s work could be recast as a military march (“Friday the 13th”), Latin-tinged swing (“Bye-Ya”) or a punk-rock jam (“Teo”)? No, these 12 cuts aren’t by-the-numbers retreads; the Micros’ leaders, pianist Joel Forrester and soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston, bring their own arrangements to bear. Some toe the line fairly close to Monk’s intentions; others skew toward iconoclasm. In the case of “Teo,” a funk-rock rhythm evolves into a hard-rock beat, while Dave Sewelson goes all nutty on the baritone sax with squawking that escalates into a maelstrom.

The Microscopic Septet is essentially a saxophone quartet plus a rhythm section. The interaction among the four horns drives much of the action, whether on the straight-up bop of “Evidence” or the balladry of “Pannonica.” But the band’s identity also hinges on the distinct personalities of the musicians: Check out alto saxophonist Don Davis’ fancy glissando and note-bending on “We See,” or Forrester’s clever, wish-it-wouldn’t-end solo in the midst of “Worry Later.”

And if you think that all the fun the Micros are having means they don’t take the music seriously, there is plenty of evidence to the contrary, starting with the opening track, a perfect run-through of “Brilliant Corners,” a song so difficult to perform that Monk himself failed. He had to splice together pieces of various takes after his band tried 25 times to play it right and finally gave up.

Originally published in March 2011
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