In the 80s, the band engendered a cagey slant on mainstream swing and then morphed into the risk-taking New York downtown scene, eventually garnering widespread attention and sell-out crowds at the Knitting Factory and other hip venues. They regrouped in 2006, carrying the torch for what has become a singular sound, ingrained in classic jazz stylizations, bop, funk, and the free-jazz domain. Known for its quirky deviations, razor-sharp horns arrangements and melodic hooks, the septet's spunkiness and tightknit overtures align with the stars on Manhattan Moonrise.
Very few jazz composers have experienced the extremes of acceptance and rejection that were Thelonious Monk's lot. Ignored and rejected early in his career – in part for the oblique weirdness of his piano style, in part for the difficulty and angularity of his compositions, and in part because he was quite clearly mentally ill – he did at least live to see his music given the appreciation it deserved, and his work has only grown in esteem since his death in 1982. Today, his pieces are among the most frequently performed and recorded of any jazz composer; as popularity among musicians goes, his music is on the same level as that of Duke Ellington and Miles Davis.
The Microscopic Septet had been disbanded for quite a few years by the time a pair of twin CD reissue compilations appeared on the Cuneiform label in 2006, prompting a brief reunion of the group to support sales. The musicians had so much fun that they decided to get together again to record a few of the many compositions that the band played during its existence, reuniting pianist Joel Forrester, soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston, alto saxophonist Don Davis, baritone saxophonist Dave Sewelson, bassist David Hofstra, and drummer Richard Dworkin, with the one new addition being tenor saxophonist Mike Hashim.
A nearly brassless little big band and a guitarless R&B group all at the same time, the Microscopic Septet was to the 1980s New York Downtown scene something of what the Art Ensemble of Chicago was to its own home town. Both bands were steeped in and respectful of the jazz tradition, but both deconstructed, recalibrated, juggled and played around with its component parts to create affectionate, often witty new amalgams of the old—and intimations of the future. The two-disc Seven Men In Neckties collects the Micros' immortal, mind-expanding but long unavailable, first two albums—Take The Z Train (Press Records, 1983) and the live Let's Flip! (Osmosis Records, 1985)—along with previously unissued, contemporaneous material.
The quirky music of the Microscopic Septet defies classification, other than it is swinging jazz blended with R&B and a host of other influences, full of twists and turns, yet remaining very catchy and accessible. Their debut LP originally came out on the Press label and was finally reissued as a Koch CD in 1998. Much like the musicians that made up Spike Jones' City Slickers in the 1940s, only some very talented players could follow these demanding charts; yet unlike the comparison to Jones' records, there is nothing that is obviously or purely cornball about this music.
The Merry Frolics of Satan is a recording of eight scores for the amazing silent films of George Méliès , the French pioneer of the fantastic. They are performed by The Transparent Quartet, and were originally premiered with the films at the Walter Reade Tjeatre at Lincoln Center in New York City on Nov. 15, 1997. They have subsequently been performed at the Clevelan Institute of Art, the Wexner Center, the Teatro Verdi in Florence, the Erie Art Museum, and Etnafest in Catania, among others. This CD was originally released on Koch Jazz, but has now gone out of print. It is the second CD released by The Transparent Quartet.
Widely acknowledged as one of the finest of the American Idol winners, Phillip Phillips suffered the shrapnel from arriving too late in the show's run to turn into a true superstar. He came storming out of the gates with "Home," his coronation song for taking the crown in the eleventh season of American Idol in 2012, but once his 2014 sophomore set Behind the Light stiffed, he became embroiled in a lawsuit with 19 Entertainment – another sign that he was hobbled by appearing on Idol late in its run, when all of the management contracts were ironclad.
The Needless Kiss was the first CD by Phillip Johnston's Transparent Quartet, the drummerless quartet he formed in the late 1990s after leading The Microscopic Septet and Big Trouble. It was released in 1998 on Koch Jazz, but is now out-of-print, due to the corporate downsizing of that label. In addition to originals by Johnston and pianist Joe Ruddick, the group played distinctive arrangements of tunes by a variety of composers, for instance on this CD, Frederic Chopin & Raymond Scott.
The second CD by Philip Johnston's Big Trouble is jazz mixing great musicianship with a touch of madness. He treats Steve Lacy's "Hemline" as if it were penned by Raymond Scott (whose music was adapted for classic Looney Tunes cartoons) and "Bone" sounds like a wild improvisation on a childhood chant. Pianist Joe Ruddick's "Heaven, Hell, or Hoboken" has a nifty calypso beat with an intense cacophony of reeds and brass. Johnston is also a gifted composer; his "Pontius Pilate Polka" blends folk dances with swinging Dixieland interludes. "Mr. Crocodile" is a light samba with a touch of reggae. Highly recommended for fans of the great melting pot of jazz.