Interview: Michael Formanek


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Bassist and composer Michael Formanek has worked with many leading North American and European jazz musicians over the span of his 35 year career, including Stan Getz, Marty Ehrlich, Evan Parker, Dave Burrell, and several ensembles with Tim Berne. His new quartet with altoist Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver premiered at The Stone in 2008 and just released their debut record, The Rub and Spare Change, on ECM. They’ll be playing Philadelphia for the first time on Thursday, October 28, and ANW was able to catch up with Michael to ask some questions about this exceptional new ensemble and record.

You’ve worked with Tim, Craig and Gerald frequently in the past. What about their individual voices compelled you to assemble this quartet and how did you compose the pieces with the unique voice of each in mind?

I’d worked most frequently with Tim in the past, and enough with Craig and Gerald separately to know that I wanted to play more with both of them, and that I wanted to play with them together. First, it was the fact that they all have such individual voices that also happen to resonate with me. Individually, they are all amazing musicians of seemingly infinite skill and depth. Collectively, they are all capable of giving themselves up completely to the idea of group expression. It’s the combination of these qualities that made them the only choice for this particular project.

What do you think these players and the new album contribute to the ongoing dialogue between improvisation and composition? How are you blurring or articulating this duality?

Is there a dialogue going on about this? If so, great! This is not a new idea, and if in some small way my music and recordings contribute to furthering this as an ideal, I’m very happy about that. Tim has been doing this very thing since well before I started playing with him, and his music has influenced my aesthetics in that area, both consciously and unconsciously for many years now. I think that the same is true of Craig and Gerald. The fact is that when it comes down to it, as far as I’m concerned, improvisation is composition, and composition is improvisation. They really are one in the same. In composition where there is no improvisation most, if not all, aspects of the music can be controlled. In improvisation the only parts that can be controlled are your own musical choices. In music that involves both composition and improvisation the challenges are fairly obvious. How to balance one’s ideas, whether they are simple seeds of musical ideas or fully formed musical statements, with the spontaneous individual or collective aspects of improvisation and the personal approaches of the players is the problem that most jazz composers have been attempting to solve for many years now. I think that Duke solved those problems quite well, as did Mingus, and so does Berne.

Did you enter the sessions with strong blueprints for the pieces or was it a more organic, collective process?

The pieces that I brought to these sessions were a mix of very specific and somewhat sketchy pieces. In all cases, though, my intention was for the pieces to not be completed until they were performed. I never wanted to have to sense that they were really done until I heard them played by this group. So, yes, there were strong blueprints, and yes, it was an organic, collective process.

The sound quality is a perfect mix of crisp and raw elements, which is a departure from the overproduction found on many jazz recordings nowadays. How important was it for the final product to sound the way it does rather than any other way?

Sound is always important to me, but we’re constantly forced to compromise when it comes to the sound of our music. The recording studio can sometimes give us the most clarity, the most appealing instrumental sounds, and the most accurate balance. What may sound over produced today is simply the difference between something that is “produced” as opposed to something that’s just “documented.” There’s a place for both, and for everything in-between those extremes. In the case of The Rub and Spare Change we recorded the music in a small studio in northwestern New Jersey, with a very experienced engineer, Paul Wickliffe. But, we mixed the CD with Manfred Eicher at Avatar in New York with James Farber, who has recorded and mixed many ECM recordings. It was really amazing to see how Manfred approached the mix, and found details in the music that were buried very deeply in the musical fabric, and then found ways to bring them out and to add some air into the sound of the recording. This was a very collaborative recording on many different levels, and I feel that the CD has an overall sound that is inviting and enjoyable to listen to.

Will the quartet be performing pieces that didn’t make the record for the Philadelphia show?

There may be a couple of other pieces, but we’ll mostly be playing the music that we recorded for these October dates. We’ll be doing more in the spring, and will be adding quite a bit of new music.

There’s a good chance the Phillies will be in game 2 of the World Series the night of the concert. Why should people come see the Michael Formanek Quartet instead of the game?

(1) Much better music than at the ball game. (2) Our performance can’t be recorded and watched on their Tivo’s later on, while the ball game can, and (3) No steroids or other performance-enhancing drugs, at least that I’m aware of.

The Michael Formanek Quartet will perform on Thursday, October 28 at Philadelphia Art Alliance (251 S. 18th Street).

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This story appears courtesy of Ars Nova Workshop.
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