Bassist Michael Formanek has become a major presence on the NYC scene over the last decade, both as a forward-looking bandleader and a sideman. His two small-group offerings, The Rub And Spare Change (2010) and Small Places (2012), both on ECM, were justly feted and lead to the acclaimed big-band set The Distance (2016) by his Ensemble Kolossos which cemented his reputation.
On Time Like This he rings the changes on the cast as he debuts his new all-star Elusion Quartet featuring the versatile saxophonist Tony Malaby, innovative pianist Kris Davis and in-demand drummer Ches Smith.
What remains the same, however, is the attention Formanek devotes to his carefully-crafted orchestrations, consummately realized through richly-detailed interpretations by the quartet. While Formanek gives them their heads, it is within the harness of the overall arrangements, which are often subtle and measured. Everyone places their talents at the service of the music.
That is clear from the off with the dreamy "Down 8 Up 5," built upon Davis' hypnotic piano ostinato and containing a passage for Smith's glinting shimmer on vibraphone. Whether in support or taking the lead, Davis excels at a spiky minimalism, notably in the multifaceted "Culture Of None" where she weaves in and out of the compositional framework.
Malaby takes the expressionistic language of the free-jazz saxophone and allies it to a melodic sensibility in a compelling but understated fusion. In fact the extended "This May Get Ugly" almost serves as a concerto for his soprano, as he alternates between-the-notes bleats, a series of haunting cries, and vocalized sighs and groans. He equally shines on "The Soul Goodbye" which starts at a simmer in ballad territory but comes briefly to the boil with Malaby's incantatory howls. But even in the fiercest moments, as here, it feels as if the band still possesses another gear should it be needed.
The leader's spare lyric style and buoyant drive propel the band, most obviously on the energetic "That Was Then," impelled by an array of interlocking riffs, which nonetheless allows Smith to cut loose in a cascade of tumbling coloration. Formanek goes on to show his considerable improvisational chops in the sprightly abstract duet with Malaby which opens the concluding "The New Normal," presaging a variety of moods: restless, languid, and ultimately martial.
In spite of the different line up, and the slightly more freewheeling approach, the set retains many similarities to his ECM dates, most importantly in that the program engages from beginning to end.
Down 8 Up 5; Culture of None; A Fine Mess; This May Get Ugly; The Soul Goodbye; That Was Then; The
Michael Formanek: double bass; Tony Malaby: tenor and soprano saxophones; Kris Davis: piano; Ches
Smith: drums, vibraphone, Haitian tanbou.