Michael Formanek: The Rub And Spare Change (ECM 2167)

The Rub And Spare Change

Michael Formanek
The Rub And Spare Change

Tim Berne alto saxophone
Craig Taborn piano
Michael Formanek double-bass
Gerald Cleaver drums
Recorded June 2009 at Charlestown Road Studio, Hampton, New Jersey
Engineer: Paul Wickliffe
Mixed at Avatar Studios, New York by Manfred Eicher and James A. Farber (engineer)
Assistant: Justin Gerrish
Produced by Manfred Eicher and Michael Formanek

The ECM debut of Michael Formanek finds the bassist-composer spearheading a cast of musicians as formidable as the tunes they’re bid to play. Altoist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn, and drummer Gerald Cleaver bond over a full-bodied flight of six Formanek originals, each a puzzle whose solution must be heard to be believed. As seasoned progressives, members of this lineup had shared a stage or two before—but never as a quartet until 2008, when they joined forces for a performance at New York’s The Stone. Not one year later, they convened under the watchful ears of engineers Paul Wickliffe and James A. Farber for an incendiary studio session, tucked stealthily away in a New Jersey borough.

Formanek Quartet

Formanek’s writing is much in the spirit of Berne, with whom he shares an uncanny ear for depth-soundings and tight changes. And with a rhythmic nexus as experienced and open-minded as Taborn and Cleaver, bassist and reedman are in trustworthy company indeed. The tripping syncopation and thematic evolution of “Twenty Three Neo” set the tone. From sandy whispers to silver-toned flights, the dynamic spectrum takes root in immediately distinct personalities: it’s Formanek who first throws the pieces to the floor, Taborn who lays the four corners, Cleaver who finishes the edges, and Berne who susses the figures that emerge. Cleaver further cuts a stern diagonal, hurtling toward the listener along a z-axis of fortitude, arco breaths filling in the gaps all the while.

Formanek wears his bandleader’s hat with humility (as attested by the mixing, which at once subverts and bolds his cause), letting the tunes expound on their own as if in some imaginary language. His moods shape-shift in accordance with the material at hand. “Jack’s Last Call” bears dedication to a friend whose unanswered voicemail was the only remainder of the life that once was. Appropriate, then, that the saxophone should be absent, its bell turned away in mourning. This puts it on Taborn to shuttle a melodic weave that, while thick, allows light of drums and prayer of bass to soak through. At the other end of the spectrum is “Too Big To Fail,” a geometrical tongue twister that builds to masterful jouissance.

The title track is two compositions in one. “The Rub” is a backward glance; “Spare Change” opens its palms toward the future. Here Formanek unspools a taut spine from which Berne’s nerve signals pulse. Here is also where the band reveals its sensitive side as it churns through reflections on its way toward epic rest. The music feels even more physical in these tender reprieves, losing neither its flair nor its suppleness. Formanek’s “Tonal Suite” is the album’s epic peak, a three-part opus of signs and signals. Berne’s occasional lockdowns, combined with punctuations from Taborn, make for a robust ride.

“Inside The Box” describes exactly the kind of thinking Formanek and his associates espouse. This is not to imply conformity. Rather, it is to say that the band defines the very box in which it moves so freely. The lines may be jagged, but maintain a consistency of vision and respect within those parameters. Formanek and Berne epitomize such intuition throughout this track (consequently the album’s strongest), emblematic for its uncompromising palette and the texture of which Taborn’s pianism expresses an especially pointed feature.

The naked quality of this document is enough to take it seriously. In the growing abyss of Real Book drones, it’s divine to encounter from that abyss groups so victorious in the glow of their own creativity. Constantly surprising and open to whatever may come: this is what the “change” of the album’s title is all about.

(To hear samples of The Rub And Spare Change, click here or watch the promotional video below.)

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