Active for roughly a dozen years, the Microscopic Septet was widely recognized as "New York's Most Famous Unknown Band." The group started with a basic reeds-and-rhythm texture that was sonically similar to the sound of the Swing Era. However, they employed this texture to address a widely eclectic range of styles, from free-form music to R&B, reggae, rhumbas and ragtime. The result was a brilliant blend of fresh-sounding orchestration ideas and inspired soloing. Along with Don Byron and former band-member John Zorn, The "Micros" were also the most celebrated of the many cutting-edge units associated with experimental music's best-known venue, the Knitting Factory, during the peak years of the "Downtown" music movement in the late '80s and early '90s.
Phillip Johnston, at the time he started the Microscopic Septet, was an NYU dropout who'd worked in a succession of jazz, rhythm and blues and polka groups in New York and San Francisco. A largely self-taught soprano saxophonist and composer, Johnston's work in both areas reveals the powerful and positive influence of Steve Lacy. "I was interested in more arranged, compositionally-oriented music .... from within the swing big band jazz tradition," Johnston recalls, "as opposed to (the conventional jazz) head-solos-head format." Organizing a group of fellow musicians, Johnston started with a sax section and planned to add brass later. However, he liked the sound of four saxes and three rhythm so much he decided to stick with that. When Johnston's original name for the group, "Claude Funston and the Psychic Detectives" proved too "unwieldy," he changed it to the "Microscopic Septet," who played their first "regular gig" at New York's Ear Inn in 1981.
The earliest and most important member of the Micros after Johnston himself was pianist Joel Forrester, whom Johnston had already been playing with in Joel's Quartet. Born in 1946, in New Kennsington, Pennsylvania, Forrester had been associated with Thelonious Monk and legendary jazz patroness Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter. Forrester almost immediately became co-musical director of the Micros, writing approximately half of the band's ever-burgeoning library of arrangements. Within a few years, the remaining personnel stabilized as Paul Shapiro, tenor saxophone, Don Davis, alto (replacing John Zorn, the band's original altoist), Dave Sewelson, baritone, David "The Legend" Hofstra, bass and tuba, and Richard Dworkin, drums.
Part of the Microscopic Septet's problem with "marketing" itself was the lack of an obvious label to describe what it did - the closest anyone came was the handle "Surrealistic Swing." While the two major strains of '80s jazz were "neo-classical" (ala Wynton Marsalis) and the avant-garde, the Micros seemed to be doing both at the same time. The group specialized in multi-layered compositions that rarely used conventional song forms but instead shifted between many different basic themes in a single piece (like Ellington or Jelly Roll Morton but unlike most modern composers).
Among the group's more requested works were the tango "Lazlo's Lament" and the klezmer-styled "Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic School Boys"; they also produced brilliant, completely re-imagined treatments of Monk, Ellington and such Tin Pan Alley items as "Tico Tico." As titles like these indicate, the group's most important asset was its sense of humor. In addition to playing with a joyful zeal rarely heard in postmodern music, the group specialized in wacky, Raymond Scott-like tune titles and Johnston's characteristically droll, Steven Wright-like bandstand one-liners.
From 1981 to 1992, the band toured Europe, Canada, the United States and appeared three times at the JVC Jazz Festival. The Micros also became one of two or three groups most associated with the Knitting Factory when that new music forum opened in the mid-'80s. Although frequently written about by the alternative music press, the band, unfortunately only rarely attracted the attention of mainstream publications and, mysteriously, even less from record labels. In 11 years of regularly working together, they recorded only four albums, none at all between 1988 and 1992, thus documenting only a fraction of the 170 charts written expressly for the group. Disillusioned and also wanting to move on to other sonic formats, Johnston disbanded the group in 1992. However, like the rest of the group, he remains an active force in the New York scene, playing in bands (comprised partly of fellow former Micros) such as Big Trouble and Twilight Time.
The Microscopic Septet: TAKE THE Z-TRAIN; OFF BEAT GLORY;
LET'S FLIP; BEAUTY BASED ON SCIENCE (THE VISIT). The Micros were
also well known for recording the main theme music for Terry
Gross' show Fresh Air on NPR (written by Joel) as well as many
other small pieces (by PJ & JF), which still play to this day.
Credit: This spiel was written by good friend and ace jazz
journalist Will Friedwald for something else, and he let us use it here
(with a couple of minor alterations) so we wouldn't have to make it
Note: "The name "Claude Funston & the Psychic Detectives" was taken from a Bill Griffith comic.
What the various Micros are doing now:
Phillip Johnston: (see rest of web page)
Joel Forrester: playing around New York and Paris in solo, duo, trio, quartet formats.
3 CDs out on Koch Jazz under the name "People Like Us"
and one solo CD, called "Stop The Music"
Dave Sewelson: leading his own group, Sewelsonics, & playing around New York, often with Joel Forrester's groups, or with William Parker's big band
Richard Dworkin: playing around New York,on the road, and recording with various artists including: Alex Chilton, Heather Eatman, David Downing, Chris Cochrane, & James Chance;
Dave Hofstra: playing around New York with The Transparent Quartet, The Metropolitan Klezmer Orchestra, Joel Forrester, Joe Ruddick, Marie McAuliffe, Lou Grassi, Sewelsonics, William Parker and many others.
Paul Shapiro: Paul's first record as a leader entitled "Midnight Minyan" was released on Tzadik Records in 2003, and he performs with the band from the record as well as another project he calls "Paul Shapiro's Ribs and Brisket Revue". Please visit his website: paulshapiromusic.com
Don Davis: "I'm in New Hampshire and play with The Extra Serious Saxophone Quartet and in Boston with "Rooster," avant blues. Also playing with "The six million dollar band" and The Kan Tu Blues band....
I always found it curious that we got more attention from mags like Elle and Vanity Fair instead of Downbeat or other music publications......"