Michael Formanek: Small Places (ECM 2267)

2267 X

Michael Formanek
Small Places

Tim Berne alto saxophone
Craig Taborn piano
Michael Formanek double-bass
Gerald Cleaver drums, shruti box
Recorded December 2011 at Avatar Studios, NYC
Engineer: Aya Merrill
Produced by Manfred Eicher

After his successful ECM debut, The Rub And Spare Change, bassist-composer Michael Formanek returns with saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Gerald Cleaver for this set of eight patient, iridescent concoctions. Formanek’s approach is somewhat unusual in modern jazz, blending not only composition and improvisation but also instrumental colors into an even palette that eschews the need for showmanship. The lines are horizontal, reinforcing one another beyond idiomatic reach toward an ego-less whole.

The title track is the group’s calling card. Its rolling topography plants handfuls of thematic roses and coaxes Taborn and Cleaver into quiet cross-pollination. Berne feeds off their pointillism, spitting back valuable loose change as Formanek tills the earth with a rich ostinato. This formula works across the board, lending programmatic intensity to each title, of which the music is an unveiled reflection. “Pong,” for one, deepens the session’s geometric feel, seeming to channel the origami flair of Nik Bärtsch’s Ronin—only here, every fold becomes a splinter. Formanek embodies the ball-bouncing effect, with plenty of ping left in Cleaver’s variegated cymbals. “Rising Tensions And Awesome Light,” for another, is a glittering exercise in mimesis that elicits a moveable feast from Berne, who alongside Taborn traces a chorused shot from motive to motive in “Slightly Off Axis,” thereby encasing the leader’s pilot light in melodic glass. The seemingly resultant “Wobble And Spill” tilts on its axis at Berne’s influence again, dancing and slogging by turns.

Further wonders await in the masterful “Seeds And Birdman” and “Soft Reality.” The former is Taborn at his best. As he draws and redraws stories in mineral rock, he sucks lava from its fissures and exhales its heat through a uniquely geological adlibbing. Berne, meanwhile, pinches flies from the air like a forest of Mr. Miyagis and weaves different shades of night between piano and arco bass, two needles knitting and pearling the horizon even as they unravel it.

Inescapable is the 18-minute “Parting Ways,” which turns its title into an elegiac deepening of the album’s postmodern sentiments. Taborn continues to stir the waters and draws from them sonorous minnows. In so doing, he taps an inner turmoil and externalizes it in poetry. Formanek’s harmonics match this poetry with their own, whispering as if shadow were light. Berne’s noteworthy solo here unearths a bag of gems, corroded but nonetheless precious. The quartet kicks up some homegrown sounds in the latter third, a back yard replete with abandoned tires and herbage galore.

This is inward, hungry playing.

(To hear samples of Small Places, click here.)

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