The Microscopic Septet

Joe's Pub; Fri 1, Sat 2

The downtown scene of the ’80s is nostalgically remembered for its squawking duck calls, hammering guitar armies and cut-up aesthetic; it’s easy to forget that actual jazz was still being played south of Houston Street. The Microscopic Septet, founded in 1980 by saxophonist-composer Phillip Johnston and pianist Joel Forrester, served up serpentine bop melodies, suave four-saxophone arrangements and Dixieland-style collective raves—sometimes in the space of a single chart.

In place of downtown irony, the Micros cultivated a polystylistic whimsy, complete with choreographed stage moves and quirky titles like “Pack the Ermines, Mary” and “Waltz of the Recently Punished Catholic Schoolboys.” Even at its breeziest, however, the band played hard; for proof, look for a burning rendition of “Lobster in the Limelight” taped live on VH1 circa 1990, recently posted on YouTube. But opportunities to play and record dried up not long after that, leading the Micros to disband in 1992.

When the band celebrated its 20th anniversary at Town Hall in 2000, it had no product to flog beyond a handmade CD-R compilation. The current reunion, on the other hand, was heralded by History of the Micros (Cuneiform), two double-disc volumes containing the band’s four albums, along with copious bonuses, such as Forrester’s ingenious theme for the radio show Fresh Air. These reissues are cause for celebration, not least because they’ve lured Johnston back from his new home in Australia for two more nights of surrealistic swing. — Steve Smith