The Microscopic Septet is one of those eclectic downtown NYC combos that got their start in the early 80s during the so-called ‘knitting factory scene’. The band disbanded in the late 80s, only to reappear a few decades later for today’s NYC scene that still leans toward eclectic influences and a quirky sense of humor. Microscopic has always favored a swing feel in their music, but not in a nostalgic or museum sense, instead, they often infuse their music with bits of the avant-garde, as well as polkas, tangos, cartoon music, punk rock and whatever else may be laying about. On their latest album, “Been Up So Long it Looks Like Down to Me”, the Septet leans heavily on their swing roots as they present eleven originals, plus two covers, that sound like they could have come from a swing dance club in the 40s. All the same, don’t confuse this album with that whole bothersome ’swing revival’ that came out of San Francisco in the post grunge mid 90s. Microscopic’s music is way more informed about what swing was, and can be in the future, than most of the heavy handed dull trend followers that made up the fortunately short lived ‘revival’.
The basic makeup of the Septet is a four piece saxophone section backed by a three piece rhythm section. Right off the bat this gives the band a sound similar to the Four Brothers, the famous spin off combo from Woody Herman’s big band. Other comparisons to the Microscopic sound could be found in the smaller combos led by Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Sun Ra. The fact that most of the members of the Septet are dedicated to this one band gives their horn section a nice cohesion and flow that is often missing from many modern ensembles whose players have to play in many bands just to pay the bills.
There are lots of great cuts on here. “Dark Blue” has a ‘talking’ bari solo that gets into some call and response with the other horns, “PJ in the 60s” opens with a fierce free solo before settling into some excellent Duke flavored riffs, “Migraine Blues’ features some hard driving Count Basie riffs topped by another wild bari solo, and “Quizzical’ has an interesting arrangement that seems to modulate through many keys in a sort of Don Ellis meets Ellington effect. If there is one song that doesn't seem to fit, it would be, "When its Getting Dark", a campy RnB number that sounds similar to the the theme from the old Batman TV show. I guess its only similarity to the other numbers is that, like the rest, it uses blues changes for its chord progression. The song does redeem itself towards the end when it builds up to four saxophones soloing frantically at the same time.
It seems lately that it has become somewhat hip for avant NYC bands to take another look at the possibilities in pre-bop jazz. The result has been some interesting ’hot’ music that gets away from the dry intellectual sound of modern post bop. If this re-examination of early jazz results in imaginative and swinging albums like “Been Up So Long…”, then it can only be a good thing.