“If the Micros have a spiritual beacon, it’s Thelonious Monk. Like the maverick bebop pianist, they persevere... Their expanding core audience thrives on the group’s impeccable arrangements, terse, angular solos, and devil-may-care attitude. But Monk and the Micros have something else in common as well.
Johnston tells a story: “Someone once walked up to Monk and said, “You know, Monk, people are laughing at your music.’ Monk replied, ‘Let ‘em laugh. People need to laugh a little more.”
– Richard Gehr, Newsday, New York 1989
“There is immense power and careful logic in the music of Thelonious Sphere Monk. But you might have such a good time listening to it that you might not even notice. …His tunes… warmed the heart with their odd angles and bright colors. …he knew exactly how to make you feel good… The groove was paramount: When you’re swinging, swing some more,” he’d say. .”
–Vijay Iyer, “Ode to a Sphere,” JazzTimes, 2010
The late jazz composer and pianist Thelonious Sphere Monk (1917-82) is one of the top creative deities in the pantheon of American Jazz Greats. He is one of jazz’s greatest composers; Penguin Guide to Jazz notes that Monk’s “output ranks with that of Morton and Ellington.” Monk’s tunes, once considered radical and appreciated by only a small cognoscenti, are now beloved standards, and may well be the most frequently covered jazz tunes on recordings. His creative brilliance continues to resonate over time; a surge of interest in the composer this year has led 2010 to be called “the Year of the Monk.”
The music of Thelonious Monk, as it escaped the windows of a Downtown New York apartment, was the catalyst that sparked the creation of one of New York’s most legendary and important jazz groups, the Microscopic Septet. Since it was founded in 1980, under the co-leadership and co-compostional duties of soprano saxophonist and composer Phillip Johnston and pianist and composer Joel Forrester, “the Micros” have been responsible for creating some of the most captivating and memorable original tunes and performing some of the most entertaining shows in the past 40 years of American jazz. In 1974, the Monk tune: “Well You Needn’t” first brought the future Micros co-leaders together by chance. Johnston was living in the Bowery at the time, and Forrester, hearing music, barged into his apartment, unannounced: “I was playing a Thelonious Monk tune, and a guy I had never seen before came walking through my door, which wasn’t locked- those were the hippie days…” The encounter sparked a friendship and working relationship, in which Monk’s music reverberated on multiple levels across the years. Another chance encounter – at chicken and ribs place West Boondock, following his performance of Monk’s “Pannonica” on the restaurant’s piano – forged Forrester’s friendship with the Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter. And through the Baroness, Forrester would ultimately meet and periodically play piano for Monk.
Since Johnston and Forrester’s first meeting, Monk’s music has remained an inspiration and guiding light throughout their music careers – and across more than 4-decades. In addition to creating and playing their own music, they always played Monk’s music: as a duo, in Forrester’s quartets and large groups, and, from the band’s very beginning in 1980, with the Microscopic Septet. Micros gigs always included their arrangements of Monk tunes, but due to the Micros’ limited number of releases (5 albums) and their copious original songbook (more than 180 tunes), they only previously recorded Forrester’s arrangement of Monk’s ‘Crepuscle For Nellie.’
The new Micros CD released on Cuneiform, Friday The 13th: The Micros Play Monk rectifies this omission. Featuring original arrangements of 12 Monk tunes, half from “back in the day” and half newly-written for this recording, the Microscopic Septet make clear their line of descent from Monk. The humor and angularity of Monk’s compositions mesh easily and joyfully with the elaboration and juxtaposition of the Micros-style arranging. Definitively not a dry deconstruction, this is a true celebration of Monk by a group that can arguably be called his most sensitive and sensational heirs.
Featuring gorgeous art work by New Yorker artist Barry Blitt – the man responsible for the infamous and controversial "Michelle and Barack 'fist-bump'" cover and other contentious-yet-humorous artwork- and liner notes by jazz critic and long-time Micros fan Peter Keepnews, Friday the 13th is surprising yet inevitable: a long overdue party with the master, at which The Micros Play Monk.
Friday the 13th arrives amidst a perfect storm of works in multiple media devoted to or about Monk. Dubbed by Jazz Times as ‘Year of the Monk’, 2010 has thus far witnessed a biographical book on Monk by Robin Kelley, a documentary film on Monk’s patron and friend Pannonica, called The Jazz Baroness, and several Cds of Monk tunes by various musicians. Transcending mere tribute, the Microscopic Septet’s Friday the 13th distills Monk’s heady and humoorous essence, revives his iconoclastic spirit, and revels in, and with, the creative compositions of Monk.