Michael Formanek: Michael Formanek: Small Places

Geannine Reid By

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Double bassist/composer Michael Formanek releases Small Places, his follow-up to his ECM debut as a leader, The Rub and Spare Change. The new album features the same band of long- time musicians consisting of: Formanek on bass, saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleavor's complex rhythm cycles. Small Places is a continuation of the creative direction the quartet's first release established with a seamless blending of composed material and improvisations through creative forms and pulses.

Formanek speaks about the band, "We had some history playing together as a quartet, so I didn't just write the new music based on my impression of what these guys could do—I wrote it based on my experience of what they can do. After being on the road with Tim, Craig and Gerald, I realized that I could write virtually anything, such was their commitment to making the music as rich as it can be. I knew that each of them would find the space in the music to express himself and elaborate on what I had written. None of these guys do the obvious things. They are extremely patient improvisers, with nobody just blasting through the material. As musicians, they are sensitive to possibilities."

Born in San Francisco, California, in 1958, Michael Formanek has performed in many ensembles of varying instrumentation and styles since his precocious gig with Tony Williams Lifetime at the early age of 18. The bassist has worked with well-known artists like: Lee Konitz, Chet Baker, George Coleman, Joe Maneri, Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Stan Getz, as well as many of the contemporary New York progressive players, among them Dave Douglas, Frank Lacy, Steve Swell, Marty Ehrlich and Marvin "Smitty" Smith. Formanek teaches jazz bass at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, where he also directs the Peabody Jazz Orchestra.

Small Places, is full of odd meters, but the listener is never distracted by the feeling, Formanek and his bandmates are masters at keeping the propulsion of the music moving in a very organic feel, despite any complex rhythmic cycles. "Rising Tensions and Awesome Light" is a great example of the group's ability to keep a feeling through changing rhythmic landscapes. The tune starts in a clear 4/4 pulse and then transitions to a very slow 5/2, with an added layer of fast-moving eights from the cymbals of Clever's drum set.

The use of layering different rhythms creates a drama that seems to inspire the group. "Pong" finds Formanek and Taborn executing wide leaping unison figures. The unison figure sets the theme that is methodical, developed to a fiery saxophone solo by Berne. The unison exploration continues through the playful development of the theme, making the two instruments sound like one is no small accomplishment, but done very well here. The development of a central theme is common through-out Small Places and perhaps is a result of Formanek's deep understanding and studying of classical composers. The emotional "Parting Ways" has 19th- century romantic overtones that Taborn effortlessly conveys from the piano and Berne's improvised lines easily moves the colors to a bridge between the 19th-century traditions to the modernism of the early 20th century.

The core feeling of the date is Formanek and his bandmates have ability to extend the boundaries of the jazz cannon without ever losing accessibility or losing the listener, this is a working band with four distinct voices that combine to form a group sound while still challenging each other, this is exemplified in the closing tune "Soft Reality." A reflective tune with a mysterious color from the pen of Formanek that wasted no ink, keeping a less is more approach. The composition has a feeling of neoclassical impulses in its expression of pared-down statements with an emphasis on rhythm and on contrapuntal texture with expanded tonal harmony and a concentration on absolute economy of musical expression.

As with all ECM releases, the sound is pristine and the cover art is wonderful, Small Places is a brilliant collection of Formanek's compositional and performance journey, taking him into a new territory of jazz that is emotional and poignant. Highly recommended.

Track Listing

Small Places; Pong; Parting Ways; Rising Tensions and Awesome Light; Slightly Off Axis; Seeds and Birdman; Wobble and Spill; Soft Reality.


Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Craig Taborn: piano; Michael Formanek: double bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums, shruti box.

Album information

Title: Michael Formanek: Small Places | Year Released: 2013 | Record Label: ECM Records



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