Small Places is bassist Michael Formanek's follow-up to 2009's The Rub and Spare Change, his critically acclaimed ECM debut as a leader. While Formanek's sophomore effort for the label features the same high profile sidemen, it differs in that the lineup rehearsed the material live before heading into the studio with producer Manfred Eicher, where every nuance of the working group's finely-honed rapport was captured in crystalline clarity.
Seamlessly blending the composed and improvised, alto saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver interpret Formanek's regal themes with focused intensity, effortlessly segueing from ethereal impressionism to earthy expressionism. The quartet's cross-generational make-up imbues the proceedings with a broad range of experience, finding common ground in the leader's lyrically evocative writing.
Their days as young upstarts in the 1980s Downtown NYC scene long behind them, Berne and Formanek have attained the status of revered statesmen. They bring a mature sensitivity to their performancesespecially Berne, whose tortuous cadences instill Formanek's arcing melodies with a quixotic sense of harmonious narrative. Cleaver's attentive contributions perfectly underscore his bandmates multihued efforts, while Taborn serves as one of the session's most salient contributors; his prismatic technique imparts a neo-classical edge to the date that elevates it beyond the pale.
Enriching the ensemble's unified approach, each musician brings his own distinctive sensibilities to bear, expanding the dynamic possibilities of the acoustic quartet format. Leading by example with great authority, Formanek disregards the convention of unaccompanied bass solos, preferring the understated support of his stalwart sidemen in a variety of robust excursions. Equally compelling, Berne's sublime variations throughout the somber ballad "Wobble And Spill" are among the most beautiful in his discography, while Taborn's radiant extrapolations on "Seeds And Birdman" beguile with kaleidoscopic detail.
The entire group shines on the visceral epic "Parting Ways," a variegated hue and cry counterbalanced by the atmospheric tone poem "Soft Reality," which illuminates a far more restrained facet of the unit's interpretive capabilities. Whether careening through the tremulous changes of "Rising Tensions And Awesome Light" or accentuating the lyrical minutia of the introspective "Slightly Off Axis," the near clairvoyant interplay of Formanek's all-star quartet makes Small Places one of the finest albums of his career.
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.
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