Joel Forrester

"Man, this whole scene is temporary!" -Denis Charles

No Really


RID-CD-007 Ride Symbol Records

You can learn a lot from the fallout of failed marriages, political campaigns and cooperative musical entities alike. Fr’instance, and despite the fact it took fifteen years to happen, the release of Walter Becker’s admirable 11 Tracks of Wack (Giant, 1994) revealed that it was Becker (and not frontman Donald Fagan) who brought out the razored wit and blacken’d heart in Steely Dan, and that Don was merely the soft-centered, chordally sophisticated Fusioneer who gave laconic voice to Walter’s cynical vision.

The similarly belated advent of “No…Really!” sheds insightful light on the composition, as it were, of the texturally unpredictable, colorful collaboration known throughout the length of their dozen-year, four-album existence as the Microscopic Sextet, which was created by P.L.U. pianist Forrester and current Big Trouble ringmaster, sopranist Phillip Johnston. The evidence of the present volume, which is Forrester’s first as a leader, makes out a case that it was Johnston who brought the more lightly skewed perspective to the Micros, while it was the lyrical, precise Forrester who was content to be wildest around the edges.

Meaning ,I suppose that “No…Really!”‘s true subversion lies in its utter accessibility and (no…really, I swear) potential widespread commercial appeal, to paraphrase the late Frank Zappa. The harmonically rich, nimble bebop People Like Us tosses off with such casual aplomb deserves thunderous applause followed by rapt attention. Who knows? We’ll see.

No doubt partially due to the baritone saxophone’s front-line dominance – Micro alum Dave Sewelson guests with the astounding Claire Daly)whose clean articulation places her a bit closer to Serge Chaloff than Jeru) on a trio of tracks – one can’t help drawing allusional parallels between P.L.U. and that vintage, circa-1959, Gerry Mulligan/Art Farmer fo’tet, the piano’s presence notwithstanding. Then again, perhaps it’s the record’s overall warmth, or Forrester’s witty melodic sense (he being the author of all the group’s material), or maybe it’s the spirited group interplay.

Whatever it is, the lasting impression is of maturity and strength. There’s not a weak link in the band’s chain of command. The only thing that’s diminished about drummer Denis Charles over the years are the number of letters in his name; bassist Dave Hofstra (yet another M. Septet holdover) is inventive, resonant and dependable; baritonist Daly is full of verve and technical skill, and leader Forrester roams his keyboard with subtle angularity and clever introspection played with delicate deftness alternating homage to his major inspiration, T.S. Monk (the father – or is that the Holy Spirit? In any case, not the son.)

About the only negative I can dredge up, tucked far away in a corner, is that I detect an occasional coyness in Forrester’s writing. This album’s “Your Political Movie” and “The Cop-Out” have that feel, but on the other hand, their titles may place their lines in the stylistic arena of another of Forrester’s major musical directions of late (he also writes for NPR’s Fresh Air), which consists of structuring real-time soundtracks to accompany vintage French silent films. No…really

People Like Us have given us people a fine, fine album.

– David Prince (Cadence ,Sept. 1997)

• • • • • • • •

The low-register, gruff-textured baritone sax, like expensive scotch whiskey, is an acquired taste. That factor, combined with its size (compared with its tenor, alto and soprano counterparts, the baritone is cumbersome), explains why the bari gets short shrift on bandstands and recording studios. Because of the limited opportunities afforded the bari, the instrument has relatively few practitioners. Nonetheless, those who do play the bari, as their first horn, usually play it well.

Such is the case here. People Like Us is a neobop foursome led by pianist/composer Joel Forrester, co-founder of New York’s delightfully quirky Microscopic Septet, together for 20 years.

His compatriots are Dave Hofstra, (another charter member of the Micros), drummer Denis Charles and baritonist Claire Daly; three of the nine selections, all penned by Forrester (who has a whopping 950 tunes to his credit), feature a second bari, Dave Sewelson. “Wait For The Word” and, especially, “Don’t Ask Me Now” (both with two baris) are airplay-worthy and telling of the pianist’s link to Thelonious Monk.

Forrester, interestingly, performed many private solo recitals for Monk during the master’s later years. Having befriended Monk’s friend and patron, the legendary Baroness Pannonica de Koenigswarter, Forrester was invited to play in her house, on a piano outside the room the reclusive Monk seldom left. “I think it was the Baroness’ strategy,” he related to CMJ, “that if I played long enough, with enough inspiration, Monk might come out of his room. I played some of his own music for him as he lay in bed, but he found that less interesting than my own music, which he encouraged….. The main criticism he offered me was through his opening and closing of the door.”

Forrester is an uncanny individualist with abiding respect for, and keen knowledge about, the jazz masters who’ve preceded him. Check out the aforesaid cuts, along with the other two-bari track, “Two Sisters”, on this briskly melodic platter full of smile-inducing solos.

– CMJ, May 5, 1997

• • • • • • • •

Pianist and composer Joel Forrester, 51, still pounds the pavement on a regular basis, hunting for gigs in restaurants and bars around New York. A bop-oriented player with a crisp attack who cites Thelonious Monk as his number-one influence, Forrester recently issued No…Really!, the first CD by his working quartet, People Like Us. The personnel includes baritone saxophonist Claire Daly, bassist Dave Hofstra, and drummer Denis Charles.

“No recorded music I’ve ever made will thrill me the way a band like that does when it’s actually playing on the stand,” comments Forrester, who adds that his tireless efforts to et work are not just born of economic necessity but are practically “a compulsion” with him. “We have played so much in New York over the last year that it’s a snap to record. We just went in and treated the recording as if it were a date in a club.”

The Pittsburgh-born Forrester is an uncompromising bandleader who takes no interest in performing standards, or any non-original music, for that matter. With more than 900 tunes to his credit – over 200 in the working repertoire – nor is he interested in being somebody’s sideman. “I don’t consider a composition actually completed until maybe a half-year of being played by the current band goes by,” he reveals. “By then, it’s been modified by the other people. That’s why I try and work as much as I possibly can: because the stand is the only proving ground for my tunes.”

– Greg Robinson (Jazz Times, Sept. 1997)

• • • • • • • •

The influence of Monk is writ large here, but as Francis Davis writes in the liner notes, “Forrester’s ability to suggest Thelonious Monk (is achieved) by winking allusion rather than shallow emulation.” The eight numbers are composed by Forrester, and the quartet’s playing is intelligent and engaging. On the longest number, “The Road Ahead”, Claire Daly’s rough tone on baritone and Forrester’s bright and playful approach are characteristic of the stimulating musical conversations one hears on this excellent outing.

Jazz is winning Pulitzer Prizes, grabbing the media’s lapels, catching the roving eyes of foundations with $1,000 bills falling out of their pockets. Which is all very nice and thrilling and a boon to civilization as we know it. Yet, there are …how to put this?…qualms about this talk of resurgence and respectability and tradition.

I’m all for resurgence. But respectability implies a smoothing out of jazz’ more unruly traditions. Its sense of humor, for instance.

Even those who pride themselves on being opposed to the grim guardians of tradition at Lincoln Center can be just as grim and, if anything, more humorless. Has everyone forgotten that jazz – exalted American treasure, timeless, majestic art and all that blah blah – is supposed to be fun?

People like Joel Forrester haven’t. Forrester was the pianist and, along with Phillip Johnston, co-founder of the late, lamented Microscopic Septet, a cadre of rakish wise guys who played big-band music with cool finesse and antic daring. In a less confused, more generous world they might have been superstars. But they were always a little too “outside” for mainstream tastes and too raucous for the musical elite.

People Like Us, a Forrester-led quartet that includes Denis Charles on drums, Claire Daly on baritone sax and Dave Hofstra on bass, dose the same thing with small-group dynamics that the Microscopics did with big-band conventions: turn them inside out without shattering the format.

“Wait for the Word”, for instance, flows like a Lennie Trestano arrangement, complete with unexpected harmonic shifts. “I Wonder” takes the listener on a winding journey through the rhumba at varying speeds. As was the case with the Microscopics, the quartet’s music carries traits lacking in a lot of contemporary jazz: catchy melodies, zesty hooks and cool titles like “Monkey in the Middle” and “Your Political Movie.” It’s “trad-hop” that packs a seltzer bottle, ready t squirt your expectations silly.

People Like Us is an exuberant reply to those who think jazz takes itself either too seriously or not seriously enough. Yet, Forrester and company are so “fringe” that it’ll take a miracle to convince bookers for “Rosie” or “Regis & Kathie Lee” to give this music some air time. C’mon, guys! The least you can do is read the liner notes. Forrester’s dry, wry commentary will make you consider hiring him as a full-time comic foil. You could do a lot worse.

– Newsday Fanfare, Sunday, May 4, 1997



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  1. Monkey In The Middle
  2. Wait For The Word
  3. Don’t Ask Me Now
  4. I Wonder
  5. Dodo
  6. Your Political Movie
  7. Blues For Duke Jordan
  8. The Cop-Out
  9. Two Sisters
  10. Bright Time

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