Wednesday, May 03, 2017

CD Review: The Microscopic Septet - Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me

There's a big stack of new CDs piling up the desk, a lot of which I really want to hear and write about. It'd would be a great day to take off from reality and dig into them, armed with a pot of coffee and a scoop pad full of notes on the best tracks. But first, something I've been listening to for a couple months, waiting for the right moment to expound....


The Microscopic Septet
Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down To Me: The Micros Play the Blues
(Cuneiform) www.cuneiformrecords.com

Sometimes the blues can sound very simple and effective, hitting the ears like comfort food, with an exhilarating rush coming around bar 9 or 10 of a 12-bar pattern. Sometimes the structure is more deceptive. After listening to Charlie Parker's "Kim" for several years, it was only when I dug into the Parker Omnibook that I realized it was built on the blues, so lost was I in the melody. The same goes for Charles Mingus' "Goodbye Pork Pie Hat." It's only when you play the chords alone (available in the More Than a Fake Book collection of his tunes) that it becomes clear that Mingus was stretching the harmonic possibilities of the blues for something greater.

The Microscopic Septet doesn't set out to redefine the blues on their latest album, but neither are they content to revel in the parlor tricks of the blues either. This band has always approached tradition with an experimental aesthetic, with a lineup that features soprano, alto, tenor and baritone saxophonists and a three-piece rhythm section. The bottom line: swing it like crazy.

Not all of the tracks on Been Up So Long adhere to the blues structure either, and even some that do are deceptive. Like "Kim," they place the emphasis on the melody, so the changes might not be noticed right away. "PJ In the '60s" refers to soprano saxophonist Philip Johnston during the decade that birthed the New Thing (so to speak), and in doing so opens with tenor saxophonist Mike Hashim unleashing some free squonk. But that's just a red herring intro, which is followed by a straight, four-sax AABA melody that makes the band sound bigger than a septet. If you're looking for wild blowing, it comes one tune later in "When It's Getting Dark," a Batman-esque blues with gruff pronouncements from baritone man Dave Sewelson.

Throughout the horns contrast with each other in terms of attack and delivery, with alto (Don Davis) and tenor sharing space in some choruses, followed with soprano and baritone doing the same. In "Cat Toys" Hashim almost sounds like a few different tenor players, going from dry and reedy to a more liquid, dreamy swing, with even a sprinkle of growling - all within a few choruses. Drawing on different styles of blues, they offer a great Ellington-style sound on "12 Angry Birds."

The wildest moment comes when the Septet re-imagines the old Christmas hymn "Silent Night" as a blues with an opening chorus that sounds like it got tangled in Thelonious Monk's "Crepuscule With Nellie." In doing so, it makes it feel acceptable to be listening to the song during the other 11 months of the year.

The Microscopic Septet first came to life during the early 1980s, bridging the gap between Uptown and Downtown New York jazz. (Pianist Joel Forrester composed the theme for Fresh Air with Terry Gross.) They hung it up in 1992 and four albums, only to pick up again 14 years later and they continue to forge ahead. And the blues continues to grow as well.

2 comments:

Phillip Johnston said...

Thanks for the reflective and insightful review, Mike. Much appreciated, and thanks for your ears! Phillip Johnston, for The Microscopic Septet

shanleymusic said...

Philip! Wow - great to hear from you. Thanks for the feedback. Tell the rest of the band I said hi. Keep up the good work. - mike