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Licensing Music on The Sonic Frontier

The Microscopic Septet - (USA)

The music of The Microscopic Septet is the sound of an entire century of jazz in America: all of it, from Ellington to Ayler, bebop to Zorn, Dixieland to experimental, captured in a microcosm. It distills the essence of jazz as a popular music into a sound that swings, a music that is intelligent, sometimes smart-aleck, and always good clean fun. Optimistic and upbeat, full of innocent confidence, the Microscopic Septet captures not only the sound of jazz, but also the sound – or soundtrack – of 20th Century America. No wonder, then, that when National Public Radio (NPR) needed a new theme song for one of its most popular shows, “Fresh Air, with Terry Gross”, broadcast to every home in America, it asked this band to compose the tune and has used it ever since.

Initially active from 1980-1992, then revived in 2006-present, The Microscopic Septet was part of New York’s emerging Downtown Music Scene, a diverse group of artists on the fringes of jazz, rock, and improv. But while the band shared some stylistic surface elements (retro sound, stage costumes, and attitude) with other Downtown bands, the “Micros” neither sounded like nor were directly comparable to any one of them. The Micros shared elements with all these bands  – and more. Yes, The Micros played swing music and quoted from the Masters, but they extended swing into the present, bringing free blowing from the lofts and Knitting Factory noise into the dance hall, and introducing the radio age to TV theme songs.

The Microscopic Septet was founded in 1980 by Phillip Johnston, a composer, soprano saxophonist, and improvisor on NYC’s Lower East Side. The band’s name alludes partially to the composers’ desire to create big band arrangements and orchestrations for a smaller group. Downbeat noted that “the septet often fools you into thinking that there are four or five more horn players hiding under the chairs.” But the name also describes their compositions, which evoke entire eras of music through snips of tango or other tell-tale refrain. As the New York Times stated: “The Microscopic Septet stands out…primarily through its command of idiomatic detail – the group summons the sound of an Ellington orchestra, or the feel of a 50’s rhythm-and-blues band, with a few well-chosen phrases and sonorities.” The team-up of Johnston and pianist Joel Forrester as the Micros’ composers proved to be magic; their compositions became the band’s stars.

The Micros live performances attracted a devoted cult following as much for the music – technically sophisticated and played by top-notch musicians – as for the on-stage antics. The band wore suits and ties onstage, as a respectful tip ‘o the fedora to Uptown’s jazz traditionalists as well as a wink to stylish New Wave rockers with skinny ties. Live renditions of one favorite tune, “Lobsters on Parade,”  featured besuited Micros donning tassled fezs and parading through the audience. Since xx, co-leader Phillip Johnston has moved to Sydney, Australia. Despite the distance, the Micros have released three new albums in recent years and continue to perform annual concerts in Manhattan. Each of the band members play innumerous New York-based jazz groupings. In addition, the two co-leaders have cultivated respected solo careers.

Co-leader Phillip Johnston focused his attention on composing film, theater, and dance scores, in addition to doing work for radio and TV. A prolific composer, he has scored more than a dozen motion pictures, working with such directors as Doris Dörrie, Paul Mazursky, and Philip Haas. He has also collaborated with Pulitzer Prizer winner Art Speigelman to create WORDLESS!, a stimulating hybrid of slides, talk, and musical performance.

Co-leader Joel Forrester actively performs in both New York and Paris; he has played in Paris at the Louvre, the American Center, the Forum des Images and the Musée d’Orsay and in New York at the Film Forum, the Brooklyn Museum, and the Anthology Film Archives.

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