Pianist Joel Forrester is one of the great wits and great tunesmiths in jazz. The co-founder of the colorful, cinematic Microscopic Septet may be best known for writing a famous radio theme for a network which enjoyed a multimillion-listener following in the decades before it was weaponized in the 2020 mass compliance campaign. Since the 80s, Forrester has also pursued a solo career infused with a sardonic wit that’s sometimes cartoonish, sometimes very slyly subtle. He’s playing a weeklong solo stand starting July 25 through 29 at half past noon outdoors on the back terrace behind the library at Bryant Park.
One good record that’s worth a spin if you’re thinking checking out any of these performance is his characteristically playful duo album Status Sphere with tenor saxophonist Vito Dieterle, which hit the web right before the lockdown and is streaming at youtube. It’s a mix of both obscure and familiar tunes by Forrester’s big influence, Thelonious Monk, along with a handful of originals.
The two musicians open with Work, the proprietor of swanky New York jazz club the Django taking the melody line with a carefree, smoky approach as Forrester works a jaunty stride pulse. The duo make a slow, turbo-hydramaticized drag out of Crepuscule With Nellie, which they reprise even more expansively at the end of the album.
The first of the Forrester tunes, Mock Time is a catchy swing number built around a bouncy series of descending riffs, Dieterle adding edgy flourishes. Forrester’s subtle dynamic shifts and sudden coy accents anchor Dieterle’s calm lyricism in their take of Ruby My Dear.
Forrester’s Requiem For Aunt Honey is a fondly swaying, gospel-tinged song without words. A return to Monk with a deviously offbeat version, spring-loaded version of Let’s Call This is next, followed by another Forrester number, About Françoise, a misty, steady ballad that brings to mind Fred Hersch’s most Monk-influenced work.
The take of Pannonica here is on the opulent side, Dieterle’s dancing lines over Forrester’s muted understatement and winking rises. The most obscure of the Monk compositions is the cheery, latin-inflected Ba-Lu-Bolivar Ba-Lues Are. Forrester adds smirky ornamentation as well a pouncing rhythm as Dieterle chooses his spots in the wryly titled Don’t Ask Me Now. And in The Comeback, the two work erudite variations on a theme that will resonate with fans of the edgily iconic repertoire here.
Left to his own devices onstage, Forrester can be totally in the tradition, or go way down the rabbit hole, much in the same vein as Anthony Coleman. The most recent time this blog was in the house at a solo Forrester gig, it was an early evening show in the summer of 2018 at a onetime Park Slope hotspot (since weaponized in the 2020 compliance campaign) where he decided to throw caution to the wind and opt for thorny terrain. It’s a fair bet he’ll concentrate on the more accessible stuff in his repertoire for the midtown park gigs.