Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus: The Distance (ECM 2484)

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Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus
The Distance

Ensemble Kolossus
Loren Stillman alto saxophone
Oscar Noriega alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet
Chris Speed tenor saxophone, clarinet
Brian Settles tenor saxophone, flute
Tim Berne baritone saxophone
Dave Ballou trumpet
Ralph Alessi trumpet
Shane Endsley trumpet
Kirk Knuffke trumpet, cornet
Alan Ferber trombone
Jacob Garchik trombone
Jeff Nelson bass trombone, contrabass trombone
Patricia Franceschy marimba
Mary Halvorson guitar
Kris Davis piano
Michael Formanek double bass
Tomas Fujiwara drums
Mark Helias conductor
Recorded December 2014 at Systems Two, Brooklyn, NY
Engineer: Jon Rosenberg
Mixing: David Torn
Mastering: Christoph Stickel and Manfred Eicher at MSM Studios, München
Executive producer: Manfred Eicher
Release date: February 12, 2016

After two eminent quartet outings for ECM, The Distancedemonstrates Michael Formanek’s redefinition of big band jazz. Although the bassist and composer cites influences as diverse as Olivier Messiaen and Charles Mingus, his music is more than the sum of its parts, a palette that yields fresh hues with every listen. Drawing on talents both within and without his usual camp, the album pays equal tribute to the known and unknown and activates the sound of each and every player.

Most of this sonic continent is inhabited by denizens of Formanek’s octagonal Exoskeleton Suite. The suite is introduced by a prelude that embodies its title better than anything that follows it. The bandleader’s soloing indeed acts like a protective shell around the many chemical reactions taking place within it. Analyzing them with scientific precision are pianist Kris Davis and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, both of whom turn method into esotery in compact sweeps of accord.

In light of this opening statement, “Part I – Impenetrable” feels like newfound freedom. Pewter cloudbursts give way to Loren Stillman’s nostalgic altoism, which like a child overturning a log uncovers a wriggling ecosystem that would otherwise remain hidden. “Part II – Beneath the Shell” fast-forwards into evening, where a groove inhales the secrets exhaled by its predecessor. Chris Speed works his tenor into the very heart of things, while Kirk Knuffke’s cornet flickers like a candle in a room that smells of rum and ink. “Part III – @heart” is a showpiece for trombonist Ben Gerstein, whose elicitation of harmonics and other peripheral signatures works into a string-bending, metallic fringe of extreme beauty.

“Part IV – Echoes” is a rift in vast ocean waters, of which trumpeter Ralph Alessi and trombonist Alan Ferber are master navigators. Where Alessi cuts his map with an X-ACTO knife, Ferber glues those pieces into a new one, leaving guitarist Mary Halvorson to recalibrate the compass in “Part V – Without Regrets.” Taking the flow into unexpected directions, she forges a chamber aesthetic to the rhythms slithering between her strings. “Part VI – Shucking While Jiving” features a string of brilliant soloists, including Tim Berne on baritone saxophone, Brian Settles on tenor, Jacob Garchik on trombone, and Jeff Nelson on bass trombone. This one marks a tectonic shift in place and time. Smooth yet also pockmarked with worthy interruptions, its atmosphere combusts by influence of ecstatic kinesis. “Part VII – A Repitle Dysfunction” returns to the fragmentary intimacies of Part V, only now with the wall-breaking marimba of Patricia Franceschy and clarinet of Oscar Noriega. Fujiwara and Davis, too, shine through the ruins with their ancient light, as precise as an eclipse. All of which funnels into “Part VIII – Metamorphic,” a collective improvisation for the full ensemble that describes a landscape formed as if through-composed.

(Photo credit: John Rogers)

The suite’s prelude is itself preluded by the title track, which eases Settles onto a locomotive track of horns and brushed drums. The force of it moves just so, blurring trees on its journey toward empty coastline. In a development so misty and cinematic that it could almost be mistaken for a Gavin Bryars ensemble piece, it interlocks with its surroundings—less like a puzzle and more like a leaf among a spray of others.

Formanek has always been unafraid to bend his scores to their limits and let their rougher edges flap for want of new connections, but here his art achieves even deeper relevance in that regard. The result is not a message in a bottle, but a bottle in a message.

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.)

Michael Formanek: Small Places (ECM 2267)

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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.)