Jazz: Bassist Michael Formanek gets back into the fray | Bleader

Jazz: Bassist Michael Formanek gets back into the fray


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Michael Formanek, second from left, with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, and Gerald Cleaver
  • Michael Formanek, second from left, with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, and Gerald Cleaver
In the 90s fans of adventurous jazz and improvised music could hardly avoid bassist Michael Formanek even if they wanted to—he was a robust, driving, and empathetic presence on many records, especially those made by Bloodcount, Tim Berne's powerful quartet with fellow reedist Chris Speed and drummer Jim Black. The bassist was a crucial anchor in that band's complex, interlocking music, whose sound has been carried on by a new generation in New York and London—in the latter city, Bloodcount sometimes seems like the Velvet Underground of the current avant-garde jazz scene.

Formanek hasn't made too many albums as a leader himself, though. During the 90s there were four—not counting his great solo recording, Am I Bothering You?—all released by Enja and all terrific, with sidemen such as Berne, trumpeter Dave Douglas, reedists Greg Osby and Tony Malaby, violinist Mark Feldman, and drummer Jeff Hirschfield. But he played on dozens of records as a sideman, on dates both straight-ahead and out-there. Then in 2003 he landed a gig at the Peabody Conservatory in Baltimore, and suddenly his presence on the national scene dwindled. In 2010, when ECM released his excellent The Rub and Spare Change, it had been a dozen years since he'd made an album under his own name. In an interview that year for Spinner Formanek said, "Because I don't come from this world, academia, I really felt that I needed to do what I've done with everything else I've ever been serious about, and that I immerse myself in it for a period of time. I tune a lot of other stuff out as I try to get myself rooted. There was a lot of stuff that I wanted to do that would establish myself in teaching and in the community."

Formanek did continue making music, sometimes with other Baltimore players such as trumpeter Dave Ballou, but he was more or less out of the public eye for much of the aughts. Happily, his ECM record wasn't a fluke. Last month he released another quartet session for the label, Small Places, with the same killer band: Berne, drummer Gerald Cleaver, and pianist Craig Taborn. Formanek wrote all the music, but you can hear Berne's influence on the newer tunes, which are more oblique, twisting, and mutable than the ones on Formanek's Enja records. More telling is the fact that this lineup has worked together regularly since its debut—when it cut that first album, it had played just a handful of gigs. They've clearly honed their intuition: the characteristic ECM production gives the sound a diffuse gloss, but even through that sheen you can pick up immediately on the live-wire interplay among the musicians. The tunes give each player a lot of space, even within sections that operate like clockwork mechanisms with their gears moving at different tempos. It's thrilling to hear the individual parts unite to create something coherent and fluid.

Cleaver and Taborn interact in a very different way than Speed and Black did in Bloodcount. Cleaver prefers floating accents and swinging propulsion, compared to Black's fractured, lopsided grooves. It's admittedly silly to compare Taborn, a pianist, to Speed, who played saxophone in Bloodcount, but the contrast between them does have a lot to do with the different personalities of the bands in question: whereas Speed snaked around Berne, helping shape the music's center, Taborn offers shapes, colors, and harmonies at the edge of the action, carving out space, laying down cushions, and playing harmonies that Formanek dices up. As usual, Formanek is subtle, only soloing occasionally, but he provides the music's heart. Below you can check out the perfectly titled "Wobble and Spill."

Before heading to Peabody, Formanek had been working regularly with fantastic Danish pianist Jacob Anderskov, and he's renewed that partnership in the past couple of years too. Formanek appears on Granular Alchemy (ILK), the new album by Anderskov's group Agnostic Revelations, which includes familiar company—Speed and Cleaver. Anderskov's music isn't nearly as intricate as the material on Small Places, but that doesn't mean it's straightforward, and the album's centerpiece, "Suite: Wind/Skin," definitely has a Berne flavor. The pianist's compositions unfold slowly, but they feel linear compared to Formanek's latest work, with its zigzagging and doubling back. Still, Cleaver gives the music an appealing slipperiness with his ability to smear time—accelerating and decelerating, playing ballad tempo against the grain on "Sediments," turning pulse into something that throbs more than it ticks. Below you can check out "Sand."

In other jazz-related news, Elastic is hosting a reopening party and fund-raiser tonight from 7-11 PM. The venue is part of the Umbrella Music collective and presents all sorts of noncommercial music; it's been redesigned, with the stage moved to create better sightlines, and also repainted (good-bye Halloween orange!). Painter Andrea Jablonski (also of Rabid Rabbit) has taken over as visual-art curator, and she's organized a show with work by Ken Ellis, John Herndon, and Jeff Harms, which will be on display. Music is provided by Fort Wellington Sound System.

Photo: John Rogers

Today's playlist:

Jim Hall & Joey Baron, Conversations (ArtistShare)
Chet Baker, The Most Important Jazz Album of 1964/65 (Pacific Jazz)
Arsenio Rodriguez, Quindembo/Afro Magic/La Magia de Arsenio Rodriguez (Epic, Japan)
Arditti String Quartet, Anton Webern: The Complete String Trios and Quartets (Montaigne)
Benedicte Maurseth, Alde (Heilo)

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