The Microscopic Septet – Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me: The Micros Play the Blues (Cuneiform)
Humor as a driving principle has seldom been embraced by jazz artists in the United States. The Microscopic Septet is among a handful of notable exceptions. On their latest release, Been Up So Long It Looks Like Down to Me, the Micros have great fun with the tradition of the blues. In the process, they craft a lighthearted, well-played session full of clever ideas, right down to the 12-second “secret track” titled — spoiler alert! — “Secret Track.”
Rising out of the experimental downtown New York City scene of the ’80s, the band went dormant for 14 years, but returned with a vengeance during the past decade and change. Saxophonist Philip Johnston and pianist Joel Forrester (who penned the theme song for Terry Gross’ Fresh Air) remain at the helm, composing most of the new album’s 13 tracks.
As suggested by the album title, the band keeps a loose, elastic relationship with the tropes, landscape and language of blues expression, which they reveal through song titles, notes, riffs, and attitudes. The Micros often achieve their aim through simple means. For example, Johnston’s “Cat Toys” toys with a fluttering grace-note-stuffed riff — like a cat toy in motion — running atop the changes. Also musically onomatopoeic, “Blues Cubistico” deals in jagged-edged riffage while “Quizzical” features twisty melodic contours.
Jazz history pops up among the hijinks. “Angry Birds,” named for the time-gobbling game app, lurches back to the ambiance of early Ellington. Naturally, inside jokes sneak into the mix. Name-checking Johnston and Forrester, respectively, “PJ in the ’60s” opens with unhinged sax-and-drum free play before the Monk-ish groove kicks in, while “After You, Joel” is a Sun Ra-evocative party favor. An oddball, out-of-season charmer, Forrester’s loopy take on “Silent Night” radically reharmonizes the carol, à la Carla Bley’s wonderful Christmas album, but, true to this project’s m.o., settles into straight blues changes for the solos. As throughout, the Micros bend the blues, but never break them.
— Josef Woodard