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Microscopic Septet : Seven Men in Neckties: The History of the Micros Vol. 1

Acquire this two-volume, four-disc set and you’ll not only own much of the recorded output of the Microscopic Septet (a.k.a. the Micros), you’ll also travel back to a time in New York’s “downtown” history when the band played haunts like the Ear Inn, the Dive, the Peppermint Lounge, Studio Henry and the recently shuttered CBGB. Co-led by soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston and pianist Joel Forrester, the Micros-with four saxes plus rhythm-brought strong playing and impeccable craftsmanship to the table, even as they shattered stylistic boundaries and proved that art music could be infectiously fun.

“[At] the time, some people were very weirded out by our kidding around in the music,” writes Johnston in his notes to Volume One, titled Seven Men in Neckties. Of course, the Micros didn’t kid around in a vacuum. Groups like the Jazz Passengers and the Lounge Lizards also did their parts, but the Microscopic Septet stood out with its unique synthesis of swing, bop, tango, cha-cha-cha, jump blues, boogie and heaven knows what else, all refracted through an ’80s avant-garde prism. They achieved modest mainstream success, emerging from neighborhood bars to play the Blue Note, the Village Gate and the JVC Jazz Festival. And they set a tone of high camp that one still finds in the work of Gutbucket, Sex Mob and the Millennial Territory Orchestra.

History of the Micros includes all four Microscopic Septet albums: Take the Z Train (1983), Let’s Flip! (1985), Off Beat Glory (1986) and Beauty Based on Science (The Visit) (1988). In addition, there are seven unreleased tracks from Let’s Flip!; an outtake from Z Train called “Kelly Grows Up”; two tracks-including an alternate of “Kelly Grows Up”-from a lost session with John Zorn on alto; an unreleased single from 1990 titled “You Know What You Know” with tenor saxist Paul Shapiro on vocals; and three versions of the Forrester-penned theme from National Public Radio’s “Fresh Air.” The renowned Art Spiegelman provided new cover drawings. In the booklets there are vintage gig promos and photos of the band “before and after.” The new pictures show Johnston and company posing with one of their tattered old manuscripts, like something they’ve excavated from an archeological site.

The sound of the first volume is raw and more appealing. The second volume, Surrealistic Swing, has more of a studio feel, with compression and reverb and such. The music, with titles like “Pack the Ermines, Mary,” “Dill Pickle Tango,” “Lobster in the Limelight” and “Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic School Boys,” reveals a riotous mix of influences: Tadd Dameron, Thelonious Monk, Jelly Roll Morton and Sun Ra meet the Ventures, Jerry Lee Lewis, perhaps a little Xavier Cugat and Carmen Miranda? Listen straight through for four hours and the playful jump-cut transitions can wear you down. But the high-level four-part writing and overall ensemble rapport make clear that the Micros were about more than mere novelty.

Originally Published