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Joel Forrester/Phillip Johnston: Live at the Hillside Club

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Pianist Joel Forrester and soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston have been playing together for 35 years, most famously as the leaders of the Microscopic Septet. The span of their partnership shows. This recent duo album, recorded in November 2010 at a gig in Berkeley, Calif., is a masterpiece of intimacy, empathy and synergy.

Seven of the dozen tunes are Forrester’s, one (“Splat,” a solo for soprano sax) is Johnston’s, and the remaining four are Thelonious Monk’s. (These guys have long loved Monk; Microscopic Septet’s 2010 release was an all-Monk outing.) The set list is an à la carte menu of moods and modes. Forrester channels James P. Johnson in the freight train blues of “Bunny Boy,” turns introspective on the melancholy “Your Little Dog,” and evokes George Winston playing Vince Guaraldi on “Second Nature,” a solo piece in 11/8 with a simple melodic structure. Johnston is a steady hand and voice throughout, rarely content just to state the theme but never veering so far from it that less adventurous listeners may take offense.

On “Some Things Don’t Work Out” (which seems to borrow from “It Never Entered My Mind”), the two men swing without a rhythm section, Johnston at times blowing counter-rhythmically. He spurs Forrester along on “Well, You Needn’t,” and then drives the melody and rhythm alone as Forrester opts to sit out for several bars. Forrester introduces Monk’s “Pannonica” in an unusual way, with soft, sustained plinks at the upper register, until Johnston plays the familiar theme very slowly and dramatically. They wrap up the set exactly as Monk used to do, with a quick reading of “Epistrophy.” Johnston does most of the improvising here, while Forrester races up and down the scales to anchor the theme and rhythm. That’s Forrester and Johnston, always supporting each other.

Originally Published