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Michael Formanek: Small Places

Hrayr Attarian By

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Bassist Michael Formanek's second release on ECM, Small Places, is an impassioned and gratifying album. Working with the same quartet as his first, The Rub and Spare Change (ECM, 2010), the music here has crystallized and matured further as the familiarity and camaraderie among the artists has grown.

Although The Rub was freer and hence more challenging, Small Places is a bit more accessible without losing its edge. The centerpiece of the disc, "Parting Ways," is a perfect. Silent pauses blend with pianist Craig Taborn's notes and Formanek's spare pizzicato tones. Drummer Gerald Cleaver's gentle cymbal splashes and snare buzzes enhance the contemplative mood, as saxophonist Tim Berne's wistful alto adds a dash of melancholy. Jagged bass and drum lines back a stream of consciousness piano solo that evolves into an intricate improvisation, along the way losing the right amount of melodicism in favor of far more complex harmonies. Taborn fades out into an ambience similar to that at the track's start. Formanek's sinewy bass and Cleaver's crashes buoy the tightly woven Berne, as he takes the theme in an unexpected but logical direction, while Taborn punctuates his monologue.

Ever the innovator, Berne explores the full range of his instrument. His tone is mordant and furious like a poem filled with righteous rage on "Pong," and is lyrical and vaguely bluesy on the contemplative "Wobble And Spill," where Formanek's unique blend of intricate structure and pure, unfettered flights of fancy are illustrated. The composition also highlights Cleaver's edgy rhythmic embellishments, infusing the piece with a sense of immediacy.

An elegant and vigorous drummer, Cleaver has always eschewed the role of the traditional Timekeeper, and is always an active participant in the creative spontaneity. On the quasi-theatrical "Seeds and Birdman," Taborn's percussive keys are mirrored in Cleaver's deep thud and thrums.

Known for a versatility that ranges from electronic experimentations to acoustic extemporization, Taborn launches into an organic and shimmering sonata with Debussy- esque flair on "Seeds and Birdman." The pianist's percolating sound builds angular and rich polyphony over Formanek and Cleaver's tight groove on the aptly named "Rising Tensions And Awesome Light" a tune that ends with the instruments bowing out, one by one, after a sonic climax.

A superlative composer and improviser, Formanek has produced his masterpiece to date with Small Places. His career is still robust so more exquisite opuses are, hopefully, yet to come.


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

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

Title: Small Places | Year Released: 2012 | Record Label: ECM Records

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