It's been quite a while since the bassist and composer Michael Formanek has led a date but with his ECM debut The Rub And Spare Change, he's more than made up for lost time. Out since October 12, The Rub marks his return as a leader since the solo bass recording Am I Bothering You? from 1998. It's not like Formanek's been sitting around doing nothing, though.
Michael Formanek has long ago established himself as a fixture among NYC's progressive players. He got his career started early on, playing in Tony Williams' Lifetime band at only 18 years old and has since gone on to play in ensembles led by Freddie Hubbard, Stan Getz, Joe Henderson, Dave Liebman, Fred Hersch and many others. He has a notable, two decade association with tenor saxman Tim Berne and the two have played in many projects led by one or the other (or both), most significantly, Berne's Bloodcount band. However, Formanek has spent much of the aughts directing the Peabody Jazz Orchestra in Baltimore.
A couple of years ago, he decided to start up a quartet, and proceeded to assemble a team of all-world players. He brought in his longtime musical partner Berne and also added a couple of guys he's worked with over the last decade: pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver. Both players have also worked with Berne and Taborn is even a member of Berne's Hard Cell band. The two were also present on David Torn's magnificent ECM release from a few years ago, Prezens. It's not hard to imagine that Formanek's new combo coalesced quickly, and fortunately, he felt it was a combo that needed to get into a recording studio. The Rub And Spare Change is the result.
This is one of those records that do little for you if you're listening to it casually, but a close ear reaps bountiful rewards. It's an album of contradictions, basically: it's scored, but it's improvisational; it's tonal but it's dissonant; everyone is soloing but no one is soloing. Such is the nuanced compositional and bandleading style of Formanek, and this is also why for his quartet, only the best players would do.
Three of these half dozen originals are two or more songs in one. Twenty Three Neo" starts with an ostinato 23 beats long and re-emerges as a one-note groove. The Rub" part of The Rub And Spare Charnge" refers to the way the harmonics rubs against each other, creating the tension Formanek was looking for. By contrast, the Spare Change" part is a very loose, open melody, allowing for group improvisation. The prodigious Tonal Suite" is a three part-er, with each section a different adventure in colliding harmonies and rhythms.
The three self-contained numbers are no less adventurous, though. Inside the Box" is set up as a four-bar, three beat piece, and Too Big To Fail" begins as a strident march full of tautness befitting of its news headline title before breaking down nearly into full-on free jazz. Jack's Last Call," an ode to a friend of Formanek's who recently passed away, is the the most emotional track.
That all said, it's not just the songs that make things great; there are some top notch performances going on here, too. Taborn is the most out front player in these sessions, and he acquits himself very well. His supple but strange lines on Inside The Box" takes off-the-beaten paths that Paul Bley might take. His rapport with Berne, as you might expect, is beyond telepathic, but he works well with Formanek, too: at one point in Tonal Suite" he is perfectly matching notes with Berne with his right hand while simultaneously tracking with Formanek with his left! On Jack's Last Call," he is able to convey accurately the sorrow and despair and reflection that Formanek wanted to get across.
For all his reputation as an outside" player, Berne has a strong inside" game, too; his straight ahead tone is very steady, airy and recognizable. Berne won't play more than he needs to (he doesn't play at all on Jack's Last Call"), preferring to make each note count. Moreover, his rapport with Taborn often takes the song to a higher level, as in Inside The Box, Too Big To Fail," and particularly, Tonal Suite." Cleaver is often asked to go far beyond simple timekeeping; the 5/4's and 7/4's he tosses out toward the end of Tonal Suite" are just a couple of examples. He is plenty capable of handling the load, though. Formanek himself prefers a self-effacing role and his bass is not very prominent in the mix. But he drops these agile counter melodies usually taking a winding path, as he does so well on Jack's Last Call."
The Rub And Spare Change puts the composing and leadership skills of Michael Formanek back into focus, where it belongs. Combined with a killer band, Formanek has produced what will surely be one of the best advanced bop releases of this year.