Formanek’s tunes are marvelous vehicles for these wonderful players to express a kind of group ethos and soar into new avenues of improvisation.
— All About Jazz
Small Places is double-bassist/composer Michael Formanek’s follow-up to The Rub and Spare Change, his widely lauded ECM debut as a leader. That 2010 release garnered a rare five-star review in DownBeat magazine, while The New York Times described the disc as being “graceful in its subversions, often even sumptuous.” The review in Progression perhaps put it best: “This type of listening experience, dense yet luminiferous, treads the tightrope between cerebral and streetwise in a damn cool way.” The new album features the same powerhouse band of longtime confreres, with Formanek in seemingly telepathic league with saxophonist Tim Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver. If anything, Small Places is a step beyond this quartet’s first release, with the compositions and improvisation blending so that a listener is scarcely able to tell where one leaves off and the other begins. Earthy yet atmospheric, this is jazz alive with dark-hued melody and bone-deep rhythms, rich in dynamic possibility and the sound of surprise.
Unlike The Rub and Spare Change, which was recorded after only a few initial live performances by Formanek and company, Small Places represents a group honed by touring both Europe and the U.S. together. Moreover, the quartet performed the full repertoire of Small Places in a New York club just before heading into Avatar Studios in autumn 2011 with producer Manfred Eicher. Small Places is the sound of a working band in peak form, challenged by the material and challenging each other in its expression.
“For this record, it wasn’t just a great idea – it was a real band,” Formanek says. “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.”
JazzTimes, writing about The Rub and Spare Change, described the quartet as “vibrant and instinctive, performing music that combines rigor and reckless abandon.” With Small Places, Formanek pushed both ends of the envelope, with writing both more structured than on the previous album (as with the rhythmically driving “Rising Tensions and Awesome Light”) and more open (the shadowy, lyrical “Wobble and Spill”). The group reacted to each direction with playing of imaginative energy and utmost sensitivity. Berne – whose own ECM debut as a leader, Snakeoil, was released earlier this year to acclaim – contributes some of his most purely beautiful playing on record ever. Formanek says: “I’ve been working with Tim since the early ‘90s, and as much as I’ve heard him do, he keeps growing and expanding as a musician. He always surprises and impresses me with what he can and will do.”
In an interview with JazzTimes, Berne spoke to the seamlessness of this quartet’s music making, the ego-free, cliché-resistant blend between composition and improvisation: “Playing with Mike requires a certain selflessness, where you don’t care about getting applause for yourself. I don’t even think of solos and comping, or of frontline and rhythm section. I think of us as four strong opinions each having his say.” In October 2012, the quartet will support Small Places with tours of both the U.S. (Oct. 2-7) and Europe (Oct. 10-21). Echoing Berne, Formanek says: “These guys have such extremely strong personalities as players that they come up with a way of expressing my music that is totally surprising to me – and more powerful than anything I would’ve thought of on my own. And when we go back on the road and play this music, I know it will be different and surprising again.”
Small Places features off-kilter balladry of keening concision (“Slightly Off Axis”) and a piece of raga-like atmospherics (“Soft Reality”), but there are also essays in muscular ostinato (“Pong”) and intense epics with the band in full cry (“Parting Ways”). “Seeds and the Birdman” burns slowly and swings freely, while the title track showcases the astonishing rhythmic virtuosity of this quartet, in particular that of the pianist. Taborn – whose 2011 ECM solo debut, Avenging Angel, was greeted by critical praise on both sides of the Atlantic – produced such teeming performances that they make Formanek laugh when recollecting their impact in the studio. “As multifaceted as I knew Craig was, it’s so much deeper than I ever imagined,” the bassist says. “How much music he can deal with, the number of ideas he shoots back at you – I mean, it is just so vast. To see what he can do with a simple theme, how he can instantly develop it and transform it into something personal and complete, well, it knocks me out.
“Craig and Gerald have this rapport, too, that makes so many things possible, dynamically,” Formanek adds. “When they play together, there is always something happening almost imperceptibly underneath the surface – these little cells – that makes the music so much deeper, more interesting and more exciting. That’s what I really love in this music, and in music that I like to listen to, generally – it’s the depth of detail. As a bass player, I have always focused on that – the things within the thing. And that’s what the new album’s title, Small Places, refers to – it’s often the nooks and crannies where the really interesting things are happening.”
Born in San Francisco, California, in 1958, Michael Formanek has performed in myriad contexts since he played a precocious gig with Tony Williams Lifetime when only 18. The bassist has worked with old masters from Lee Konitz to Joe Maneri via Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Stan Getz, as well as with a who’s who of contemporary New York progressive players (including as a member of Tim Berne’s longstanding Bloodcount band). As a leader, Formanek released a string of albums on the Enja label in the 1990s, as well as a solo bass disc for Berne’s Screwgun label. Formanek teaches jazz bass at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore, where he also directs the Peabody Jazz Orchestra. In 2007, the orchestra premiered his composition The Open Book.