Michael Formanek – “Small Places”


Michael Formanek - "Small Places"Something about bassist Michael Formanek‘s previous release on ECM really hit me the wrong way.  2010’s The Rub and Spare Change was comprised of an all-star quartet of modern jazz artists, was released on the ECM label, which is no small thing to be sure, and it came at a time when all four musicians were at the top of their game in regards to other projects.  But it just didn’t come together for me.  I still recall some compelling moments when Taborn ran off a series of jewels on piano while Formanek lent some arco to the mix.  I guess I wanted more of that or, at least, to not have to get through the rhythmic stagger and lurches that much of the rest of the recording presented.

It became one of those rare albums that I didn’t like but never forgot, and then jumped at the next opportunity to listen to the artist’s next release.  On 2012’s Small Places, Formanek returns with the same quartet for the same label, and this time, I’m much happier with the outcome.

Your album personnel: Michael Formanek (double bass), Tim Berne (alto sax), Craig Taborn (piano), and Gerald Cleaver (drums, shruti box).

Formanek talks about the challenge of finding different proportional lines between improvised and composed music, and this may be why the same equation brings about very different results for me between last album and the current.  The Rub had a push-and-pull effect that didn’t appeal to me personally.  Just when I felt like he was going to develop a compelling section, he hit either hit the gas pedal, the brake pedal, or, more often, engage the hydraulic lift.  It’s not that I’m against this kind of time play, only that I was looking for a different math in how it was applied.

I knew Small Places was going to be a different experience for me before second track “Pong” had ended.  The development of lines between Berne’s sax and Taborn’s piano is on the edgy side of beauty, and they rides that edge from first note to last.  And that follows on the heels of album opener and title-track “Small Places,” which brings a chipper glide-and-scamper motion to the gathering.  Taborn’s keys barely touch the ground, but it’s Formanek that elicits the gasps with his leaps over tall buildings.  That the quartet is more willing to simply drift away weightlessly, like “Slightly Off Axis” was a good sign, and their talent for showing-not-telling was on full display there.

“Seeds and Birdman” was an aspect of The Rub that I enjoyed… a cool stroll through a noir-ish setting… a sense of The City and all the shadows it has to hide.  Cleaver brings a subtle kickstart to the composition that keeps it lively without needing to get loud. He keeps things cool.  And album-closer “Soft Reality” shows a return to the piano-bass arco loveliness that I so enjoyed on The Rub.

Overall, a real nice album.

An additional bonus for me personally (and really for anyone whose thoughts on the two Formanek ECM releases mirror my own) is the opportunity to go back and revisit The Rub and Spare Change. I’ve often found that connecting with a later album opens a new avenue to connecting with previous ones.

Released on the ECM Records label.

Jazz from NYC.

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