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The Microscopic Septet: Manhattan Moonrise

cover of The Microscopic Septet's Manhattan Moonrise

“Break all the rules, and respect all the saints,” says soprano saxophonist Phillip Johnston.

Johnston's musical saints include Ellington, Monk, Sun Ra, Cab Calloway and Jelly Roll Morton, who provide jumping-off points for the Microscopic Septet, the band he co-founded thirty-five years ago wth pianist Joel Forrester.

“I’ve always considered that The Microscopic Septet presents an outward show of being a ‘revival’ outfit,” says Forrester. “But we attempt to revive… what never existed. A revival of the future, then?”

The septet’s rich sound is all its own, as we hear on their new Cuneiform CD, Manhattan Moonrise.

At the band’s core is a saxophone choir: Johnston, altoist Don Davis, tenorist Mike Hashim and baritone man David Sewelson, with David Hofstra on bass and Richard Dworkin on drums. Forrester’s piano and arrangements create a lush ensemble that, if it feels the desire, can sound several times larger than its modest size.

But like their heroes, the Micros make you first want to tap your toes, then get up and dance.

Fine examples of this approach are “When You Get In Over Your Head” and “Let’s Coolerate One,” whose tight voicings, swinging beat and touches of modernism sound like they could have been played by the hippest dance band on a transantlantic ocean-liner in the 1930s.

“Obeying The Chemicals” takes a ride through the contrasting rhythms of boogie-woogie and funk. “Star/Turn” features a soulful turn by altoist Davis, while the anthemic “Hang It On A Line” features Sewelson’s baritone.  “A Snapshot Of The Soul” and “Blue” take the band into more abstract territory.

The album combines new compositions, like “Occupy Your Life,” the album’s Beethoven-takes-a-rhumba closer, with songs plucked from the band’s 200-plus book of songs from over the years, most of which have never been recorded.

In 1992, the band took a hiatus and only reconvened in 2005 to assemble Cuneiform’s re-release on CD of its early work. Since then, by popular demand – Manhattan Moonrise was financed through crowd-sourcing from fans - the band has recorded three new albums and returned to touring, despite the fact that Johnston no longer lives in Manhattan, but halfway across the globe in Sydney, Australia.

In 2014, the band’s swinging modernism sounds as hip, and as danceable, as ever. And as younger ears rediscover the inspirations to be found in jazz that makes the body move, the Micros sound prescient. Sounds for the future, indeed!

The Microscopic Septet performs at 9:30 and 11:30 p.m. June 12 at Smalls Jazz Club in New York; Johnston and Forrester perform as a duo June 10 at SpectrumNYC at 7 p.m..

Manhattan Moonrise, out May 27, is available for pre-order from iTunes, Amazon, Bandcamp and Wayside Music.

  - Tim Wilkins, WBGO digital content producer

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