Tag Archives: The Microscopic Septet

“LARKIN’S LAW” AND ITS DISCONTENTS, or “WHO’S SORRY NOW?”

When I first read poet / jazz-lover / jazz-essayist Philip Larkin’s “law,” some forty years ago, I thought it sardonically amusing, as was Groucho’s “I wouldn’t want to belong to any club that would have me as a member.”  Now, I find it and its effects quite sad:

“If I were to frame Larkin’s Law of Reissues, it would say that anything you haven’t got already probably isn’t worth bothering about.  In other words, if someone tries to persuade you to buy a limited edition of the 1924-25 sessions by Paraffin Joe and his Nitelites, keep your pockets buttoned up: if they were any good, you’d have heard of them at school, as you did King Oliver, and have laid out your earliest pocket money on them.”

I’ve always had an odd admiration for Larkin, while making the necessary effort to ignore much of what he wrote: he is the embarrassing relative at the holiday dinner table who shares his racist, misogynistic views.  I am also certain that had we met, he would have satirized me in his diary that evening.  But his vigorous parochialism ran parallel to some of my taste: he thought the 1932 Rhythmakers sessions the height of Western civilization, a sentiment I can understand.

Larkin’s Law would seem valid to many in “the jazz audience” I know, a credo in support of Their Kind of Music.  Caveat immediately: there are so many jazzes and thus so many audiences that I can only speak of the small slice I experience, in person, in correspondence, and through social media.

With JAZZ LIVES as my creation for over a decade, I continue to be thrilled by the music yet often puzzled by the provincialism of the response it receives.  Of course this blog is an expression of my own tastes, which have been shaped by experience(s).  I prefer X to Y even if received wisdom says I shouldn’t.  And although my response may be simply “That band doesn’t move me,” I stand by my aesthetics.

However, even though jazz was once a radical music, an art form relegated to the basement where it wouldn’t upset the pets, the audience can be aesthetically conservative, defining itself in opposition.

As Sammut of Malta writes, people view art as a box rather than as a spectrum.

I think many of the jazz-consumers have decided What They Like and it is often What They Have Always Liked.  Their loyalty is fierce, even in the face of unsettling evidence.  My analogy is the restaurant at which one has a brilliant meal, then a good meal, then a dreadful meal — but one keeps returning, because one always eats there.  Familiarity wins out over the courage to experiment.  “I love this band.  I first heard them in 1978!”

As an aside: I’ve watched audience members at jazz festivals who race to see Their Favorite Band and then talk through the set, applauding loudly what they could not have heard, convinced that they are having the time of their lives.  (This phenomenon is a subject for another blog: it worked its way in here and it deserves its few words.)

Loyalty is a lovely thing, and audience members certainly may gravitate to what pleases them.  If you tell me that Taco Bell is the best Mexican food that ever was, I can protest, I can meet you after lunch, I can invite you to the taqueria down the street, but changing your mind is difficult.  You like what you like for a complex network of reasons, many of them unexamined.

What does worry me is when affection becomes rigidity and turns into a rejection of anything a few degrees away from the Ideal.  It happens on both ends of the aesthetic continuum.  One of my Facebook fans used to dismiss music she found too modern as “Too swingy.”  I suggested to her that jazz of the kind she preferred also swung, but it was clear that some music I embraced seemed heretical to her.  Conversely, “I don’t like banjos and tubas” is a less-heard but prevalent response, to which I want to say, “Have you heard A play the banjo or B play the tuba?  Perhaps your condemnation needs to be refined to ‘I prefer rhythm guitar and string bass in rhythm sections, but other ways to swing can be pleasing as well’.”  I can even say, “Have you heard Bernard Addison and John Kirby in 1933?” but does everyone recognize those names?

In practical terms, Larkin’s Law means that many people reject as unworthy what they do not immediately recognize.  Closing the door on anything even slightly different will not help those who want the music they love to go on.  And it will deny the listener pleasurable surprises.

I, too, know jazz parochialism.  When I was 14, I could have told you that I liked jazz.  Pressed for a definition of what I liked, I would have said Louis Armstrong, Jack Teagarden, Benny Goodman small groups, and not much else.  Soon I added the Billie Holiday small groups, 1940 Ellington, 1938 Basie, and so on.  It took a long time before I could “hear” Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie with pleasure and understanding, but I knew there was something worth investigating.  I have not gotten beyond early Ornette or Wilbur Sweatman, but I keep listening and attending live jazz performances.

I know some JAZZ LIVES readers and friends have more open ears than what I describe.  And some of them, whom I celebrate happily, have written to say, “Thank you, Michael, for introducing me to _____ and _________, whom I wouldn’t have heard without your blog.”  Reading this, I think gleefully, “My work on the planet is done,” and go to do the dishes with a big grin.  But I wonder how many listeners have seriously considered, let us say, both Mike Davis and Lena Bloch, Kim Cusack and Ted Brown, Paul Asaro and Joel Forrester, the Chicago Cellar Boys and the Microscopic Septet, Kirk Knuffke and Danny Tobias — to pick a few vivid examples.

My apparent ecumenicism does not mean I like everything.  And I receive a good number of solicitations from music publicists and even CDs: I listen before saying, “No, that’s not for me.”  Rarely do I think, “Wow, that’s bad music!”; rather, I say, “What that artist is doing is not pleasing to me, but that says much about me as well as what it says about the art.”

We all, I believe, fell in love with certain varieties of this art because they made us feel excited, joyous, alive, exuberant — a WOW moment.  For some, the Love Object may be Oliver’s ROOM RENT BLUES or the closing chorus of the Hot Seven’s WEARY BLUES, or a Decca Lunceford, the Jones-Smith session, Hawkins’ SIRIUS . . . .  And no one would propose to say to an enraptured listener, “You really shouldn’t listen to that,” unless one wants to argue.  But what if some musician or band offered a serious WOW moment and the listener had refused to try it out, because, “I don’t listen to anything that isn’t . . . . “?  Should we be so in love with what we love that we keep our ears closed, as if it would be fatal for us to spend two or three minutes with a music that didn’t instantly please us?

Our preferences are strong.  But occasionally those preferences are so negative that they make me envision my fellow jazz-lovers as irritable toddlers.  “Honey, we have A through L for lunch.  What would you like?” The response, in a howl, “No!  No!  No!  Want R!”

There is another manifestation of this calcified reaction, one I perceive regularly through JAZZ LIVES.  Certain artists have powerful magnetism: call it star quality, so whatever they play or sing attracts an audience.  (It is reminiscent of the imagined book with the widest audience, called LINCOLN’S DOCTOR’S DOG.)  I have often thought that the most-desired video I could offer would have technically dazzling music at a fast tempo, performed by young people, women and men both.  A little sexuality, a drum solo, novelty but not too much, evocations of this or the other jazz Deity . . . it’s a hit!

But it also should be music made by Famous Names.  You can compile your own list of stars who often play and sing beautifully.  But when I offer a video without Famous Names, without the visual novelty, fewer people go to it, enacting Larkin’s Law.  “I don’t know who that is.  How could (s)he be any good?”

Do we listen with our ears or our eyes or with our memory for names?

Could listeners, for instance, make serious judgments about music they knew nothing about — the Blindfold Test?  I admire Hot Lips Page above most mortals, but I have learned to be courageous enough to say, “I love Lips, but he seems bored here — he’s going through the motions.”  Whether I am right or not matters less, but making the critical judgment is, I think, crucial.

These thoughts are provoked by Larkin’s Law as an indication of historical allegiance rather than expansive taste, of a narrowness of reaction rather than a curiosity about the art form.

What I conceive as the ideal may seem paradoxical, but I applaud both a willingness to listen outside one’s tightly-defended parameters and, at the same time, to be seriously aware in one’s appreciation and not turn habit into advocacy.  Let us love the music and let us also hear it.

And, in honor of Philip Larkin, who may have stubbornly denied himself pleasure by hewing to his own asphyxiating principles, here are some of his artistic touchstones:

A personal postscript: JAZZ LIVES gives me great joy, and I am not fishing for praise.  Many people have told me in person how much they appreciate my efforts.  But I perceive provincialism creeping up the limbs of the jazz body as sure as rigor mortis, and I would like this music to continue, vigorous, when I am no longer around to video it.

May your happiness increase!

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TWO ORIGINALS PLAY THREE ORIGINALS: JOEL FORRESTER and DAVID HOFSTRA at JULES (May 13, 2018)

Another Sunday afternoon with pianist-composer Joel Forrester at Jules, 66 St. Marks Place in New York City.

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

This afternoon, Joel brought along a dear friend and deep colleague, string bassist David Hofstra, who has been a mainstay of the Microscopic Septet for years.  Joel and David have been playing alongside each other since the Seventies, and their first recording is from 1980.

My readers have already heard or read me being seriously enthusiastic about Joel’s original compositions and his improvisations: they honor many traditions but fit neatly into no shoebox-sized category.  But since I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed Joel and David together as a duo, may I call your attention to the latter’s beautiful choice of notes, his steady unforced time, his gentle lyricism? David is no antiquarian (I’m older than he is, if the online data is right) but he harks back to a time when the string bass was both treated with respect and known as the harmonic and often moral foundation of the music in which it worked.  Just beautiful — and the two players here are in splendid intuitive harmony.

PHILLIP’S BLUES (which I presume is in honor of Microscopic Septet’s co-leader, saxophonist / composer Phillip Johnston):

Gentle meditations on the finite, NOTHING LASTS FOREVER:

A compact Frolick, LOOK TO YOU:

Joel will be at JULES all summer — solo, duo, trio.  He and Mary are off to France for a year in September, so savor this music while he — and friends — are here.

May your happiness increase!

“FOREVER WEIRD”: THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET and FRIENDS at THE KITCHEN, PART TWO (Dec. 9, 2017)

Here’s Part Two of that glorious evening at The Kitchen in New York’s Greenwich Village with the Microscopic Septet and friends.  Part One, for those who want to review their notes (and the Septet’s) is here.  But here’s the personnel for those who, like me, need to know the names of our heroes: Joel Forrester, piano, composer, co-leader; Phillip Johnston, alto and soprano saxophone, composer, co-leader; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone and vocal on CRY; Michael Hashim, tenor saxophone, Don Davis, alto saxophone.  Incidentally, for some listeners who like their jazz only one or two ways, the Micros may sound “avant-garde.” I urge them to listen: this band loves the blues and has its own ferocious swing.  They seem to me to be taking traditional forms and approaching them with loving zealous individualities.

The Microscopic Septet, if they are new to you, is a long-lived improvising ensemble — devoted to “serious fun,” as my friend John Scurry terms it.

Phillip Johnston’s LET’S COOLERATE ONE:

From The Middle Period, LOBSTER IN THE LIMELIGHT:

If you need directions, just TAKE THE Z TRAIN:

Finally, I GOT A RIGHT TO CRY (vocal Dave Sewelson) — originally performed by Joe Liggins but sounding eerily and happily like a Joel Forrester composition:

The Grand Finale, deserving of initial capitals, where the Micros, the Jazz Passengers, and the Kamikaze Ground Crew, jammed on DON’T MIND IF I DO, will appear in the last post of this series.  Look for it wherever better blogposts and videos are given away for free.

Extra!  This post is in celebration of Micros co-leader Phillip Johnston, who yesterday won the 2017 Johnny Dennis Music Award:

The 2017 winner of the Johnny Dennis Music Award, which acknowledges great achievement in Australian music composition, is composer/performer Phillip Johnston.

Outgoing Australian Guild of Screen Composers’ President, Guy Gross, said “The AGSC Board were delighted with the choice of Phillip Johnston as the 2017 recipient of this major award which carries a cash prize of $20,000.”

“This award gives the recipient the creative and financial freedom to work on a project of their choice. The project chosen by Phillip Johnston will expand the knowledge and understanding of the history of the Australian film industry, both in Australia and internationally, as well as create new and innovative fusions of film and music.”

The JD Awards were established in perpetuity through the will of Dennis John Mole, whose stage name was Johnny Dennis.

Phillip Johnston’s winning proposal was to conduct research at the National Film and Sound Archive with the purpose of creating new original scores for historical Australian silent films that would help to make the films accessible to modern audiences.

On receiving the Award Phillip Johnston stated “Receiving the Johnny Dennis Award will support my new original scores for silent film project, which involves both research into the rich history of Australian silent film and the creation of new musical scores to be performed live with the films.”

“After 25 years of composing and performing new scores for American, European and Japanese silent films worldwide, I’m very excited about turning my attention to a new exciting project combining two of my major interests: new relationships between music and film, and Australia’s great contribution to world film history.”

May your happiness increase!

“FOREVER WEIRD”: THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET and FRIENDS at THE KITCHEN, PART ONE (Dec. 9, 2017)

For me, 2017 has been a year of wonderful music, meeting and hearing Nancy Harrow, interviewing Dan Morgenstern, and more.  The “more” includes hearing and recording The Microscopic Septet twice.

I know I am late to the festivities, since the Micros have been changing the world one song at a time for more than thirty years, but I am certainly enjoying them.

The facts, or what they resemble: the Micros are co-led by pianist / composer Joel Forrester and saxophonist / composer Phillip Johnston.  The five other nobles in the crew are Richard Dworkin, drums; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone and vocal; Michael Hashim, tenor saxophone; Don Davis, alto saxophone. They make uplifting, always surprising music.

The first time I had the pleasure was on June 6, at the Astor Room in Astoria, New York, and the results are here and heregloriously.

Six months later, I very happily found myself in a reserved seat in the front row of The Kitchen at 512 West 19th Street in the West Village of New York City, waiting for the music to begin.  Phillip had gathered the Micros and two other bands from the same time and place — the Jazz Passengers and the Kamikaze Ground Crew, for what he called FOREVER WEIRD.

At times, the music was weird, but in the most friendly ways.  To attempt to “interpret” it would be an impudence both to the musicians and this audience. I will indulge myself in only one metaphor: imagine a train rhythmically moving through a constantly shifting multi-colored landscape, changing, morphing, returning.  Just as we’ve gotten comfortable with the purple stalactites outside the window, they are replaced with three (not four) upholstered kitchen chairs. And we are happy.

Not knowing the two other bands, I did not video-record them (although we might get to see the finale, when everyone gathered onstage and played DON’T MIND IF I DO — in a future post) but I devotedly captured the Micros. The premise of their hour-long set was a quick retrospective through their collective history — too rich to compress into eight performances, but what a satisfying jaunt.  Here are the first four:

Phillip’s A STRANGE THOUGHT ENTERED MY HEAD:

LIEUTENANT CASSOWARY, by Joel:

Joel’s SECOND AVENUE:

A “seasonal favorite” for the “generic holiday season,” recomposed by Joel:

The second half will come soon.  I know this offering is but a fraction — one-half of the closing third, but it’s a very rewarding sixth.

Thanks to Phillip Johnston, Don Davis, Dave Sewelson, Michael Hashim, Richard Dworkin, Joel Forrester, Dave Hofstra, and to the kind people at The Kitchen, who couldn’t have been more welcoming.

May your happiness increase!

THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET FINDS ITSELF IN ASTORIA, NEW YORK, AND WE ARE GRATEFUL: PART TWO (June 6, 2017)

Here is the first set of the Microscopic Septet’s performance at the Astor Room on June 6.

What follows might seem self-indulgent (the reference is back to me, not the band) but here is what I wrote for that first post.  I don’t think the Micros are as widely admired as they should be, and although Milton’s “Fit audience, though few,” still is true to me, I’d like to extend the circle of admirers just a little . . . through words as well as videos.

Had you told me, several decades ago, when the Microscopic Septet came, gently ferocious, out of the speakers of my stereo system, that I would be spending a June night in 2017, sitting in front of them with a video camera, I would have said it was cruel to tease me.  But it happened.  And to me, it’s one of the half-dozen accomplishments of this blog-endeavor I’m most proud of.

A brief digression.  I’m coming to the realization that most categorization has nothing to do with the subject.  Of course, at the farmers’ market, it is useful for the purchaser to know what kind of kale or apple or cucumber that unlabeled beauty is, because the purchaser might have certain tastes.  But music is thankfully more expansive than the space between the Ida Red and the Jonagold. So those jazz listeners who wish to debate whether their favorite band plays postmodern-New Orleans-Second Line-funk OR you could call it retro-modern-Creole-trad are encouraged to go outside and play, if the weather is nice.

I confess that I, too, have fallen into the categorizing urge (or is it prison?) now and again, and I even did it for one moment with the Micros, when I whimsically categorized their music to Joel Forrester (to whom I apologize) as “super-intellectual-rhythm and blues,” and the politely pained look that crossed his face as he said, “Well, I don’t know,” was the look you give to a dear friend or relative who has just said something quite surprisingly foolish.  So I gave that up and simply revel in the music: its energy, its surprising twists, its rollicking momentum, its dramatic shapes, its tender musing sadness.  They are too large and luscious to fit in any Facebook group, and that’s something to celebrate.  (Incidentally, I hope any readers who might get scared away by “modernism” give the Micros an attentive few minutes.  They’re not “the Dixielanderini,” but they certainly swing.)

I apologize for the brutality of the image that follows, but when someone asked William Carlos Williams why he didn’t write sonnets, he said, “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet–gosh, how I hate sonnets–is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through you don’t have a crab anymore.”

The Microscopic Septet plays within forms — the blues, other people’s compositions — but they also extend and stretch those forms, with ingenuity and love, so that no metaphysical animals are harmed.

For this New York gig, the Micros are Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone and articulate announcements; Don Davis, alto saxophone; Mike Hashim, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone and vocal; Joel Forrester, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums.

Here’s the first set of their evening at the Astor Room.  By choice, I sat as close as I could without joining the band, so occasionally the players on either end are bisected or in the dark, but I trust that the closeness of the sound recording makes up for this.

Now, here is the second set (I’d moved back several feet, so all the players should appear in the video as they do in life).

CAT TOYS:

DARK BLUE:

LOBSTER IN THE LIMELIGHT:

PANNONICA:

LITTLE BOBBY:

STAR TURN:

WHEN YOU GET IN OVER YOUR HEAD:

WHEN IT’S  GETTING DARK:

I’VE GOT A RIGHT TO CRY, with vocal chorus by Dave Sewelson:

Rushing time away is never a good thing, but I hope the Micros visit New York again — soon — if not sooner.

May your happiness increase!

THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET FINDS ITSELF IN ASTORIA, NEW YORK, AND WE ARE GRATEFUL: PART ONE (June 6, 2017)

The Microscopic Septet’s most recent CD.

Had you told me, several decades ago, when the Microscopic Septet came, gently ferocious, out of the speakers of my stereo system, that I would be spending a June night in 2017, sitting in front of them with a video camera, I would have said it was cruel to tease me.  But it happened.  And to me, it’s one of the half-dozen accomplishments of this blog-endeavor I’m most proud of.

A brief digression.  I’m coming to the realization that most categorization has nothing to do with the subject.  Of course, at the farmers’ market, it is useful for the purchaser to know what kind of kale or apple or cucumber that unlabeled beauty is, because the purchaser might have certain tastes.  But music is thankfully more expansive than the space between the Ida Red and the Jonagold. So those jazz listeners who wish to debate whether their favorite band plays postmodern-New Orleans-Second Line-funk OR you could call it retro-modern-Creole-trad are encouraged to go outside and play, if the weather is nice.

I confess that I, too, have fallen into the categorizing urge (or is it prison?) now and again, and I even did it for one moment with the Micros, when I whimsically categorized their music to Joel Forrester (to whom I apologize) as “super-intellectual-rhythm and blues,” and the politely pained look that crossed his face as he said, “Well, I don’t know,” was the look you give to a dear friend or relative who has just said something quite surprisingly foolish.  So I gave that up and simply revel in the music: its energy, its surprising twists, its rollicking momentum, its dramatic shapes, its tender musing sadness.  They are too large and luscious to fit in any Facebook group, and that’s something to celebrate.  (Incidentally, I hope any readers who might get scared away by “modernism” give the Micros an attentive few minutes.  They’re not “the Dixielanderini,” but they certainly swing.)

I apologize for the brutality of the image that follows, but when someone asked William Carlos Williams why he didn’t write sonnets, he said, “Forcing twentieth-century America into a sonnet–gosh, how I hate sonnets–is like putting a crab into a square box. You’ve got to cut his legs off to make him fit. When you get through you don’t have a crab anymore.”

The Microscopic Septet plays within forms — the blues, other people’s compositions — but they also extend and stretch those forms, with ingenuity and love, so that no metaphysical animals are harmed.

For this New York gig, the Micros are Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone and articulate announcements; Don Davis, alto saxophone; Mike Hashim, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone and vocal; Joel Forrester, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums.

Here’s the first set of their evening at the Astor Room.  By choice, I sat as close as I could without joining the band, so occasionally the players on either end are bisected or in the dark, but I trust that the closeness of the sound recording makes up for this.

MANHATTAN MOONRISE:

LET’S COOLERATE ONE:

WE SEE:

MIGRAINE BLUES:

TWELVE ANGRY BIRDS:

BRILLIANT CORNERS:

HANG IT ON A LINE:

Thrilling, no?  Also lyrical, pensive, multi-textured, raw, hilarious, moving . . . you can fill in your own praises.

A second set of videos will follow.

May your happiness increase!

JOEL FORRESTER’S MOVING WORLDS

JOEL FORRESTER, photograph by Metin Oner

My fascination with Joel Forrester and his music goes back more than a decade. I would guess that I heard the quizzically entrancing orchestra THE MICROSCOPIC SEPTET on WKCR-FM and was intrigued by its unpredictable mixture of new and old.  And then I heard Joel in person with a few small bands he’d assembled — one called THE TRUTH, which was an accurate description.

Joel doesn’t strive to shock the listener, but he doesn’t follow predictable paths — which is, in an era of reproducible art, an immense virtue. His playing and his compositions can be hilarious, angular, tender — sometimes all at once, and his music is vividly alive, which is no small thing.

I write not only to celebrate Joel — in all his surprises that invite us in — but to remind New Yorkers of opportunities to savor his art.  Every Saturday, he is playing a solo piano gig at Café Loup, 105 West 13th St. at 6th Avenue, in Greenwich Village, from 12:30—3:30 PM.

On Tuesdays, from 6-10, Joel plays solo piano at the Astor Room (located in the Kaufman Studios complex) 34-12 36th St. in Astoria, Queens.  I suggest you mark your calendars for Tuesday, June 6, when there will be a special — no, remarkable — happening, where Joel will begin with a solo piano set (his custom on Tuesdays) and then there will be two sets by The Microscopic Septet with Phillip Johnston, soprano saxophone (visiting from Australia!); Don Davis, alto saxophone; Michael Hashim, tenor saxophone; Dave Sewelson, baritone saxophone; Joel, piano; Dave Hofstra, string bass; Richard Dworkin, drums.

And their latest CD — thirteen variations on the blues, with echoes of Johnny Hodges, a Basie small group, Mingus, rhythm ‘n’ blues . . . titled BEEN UP SO LONG IT LOOKS LIKE DOWN TO ME — is frankly extraordinary.  Read more here.

and here’s DON’T MIND IF I DO from that new CD:

And I am not surprised that Joel is a fine writer — think of Joseph Mitchell at a tilt, an affectionate chronicler of urban scenes: read his “Three Memorable Drunks.”

Finally, since I expect that this will awaken some of you to the whimsical glories Joel so generously offers us, here is a link to Joel’s website and gig calendar.  As for me, I have new places to savor, which, even in New York City, is a wonderful thing.

May your happiness increase!