Saturday, September 22, 2012

Michael Formanek Quartet Small Places ECM 2012

Some musician or in this case a formidable quartet make a name by playing outside the box. The ensemble sometimes pushes the sonic barriers to the extent that box begins to break down.

Michael Formanek and this fearsome 4tet don't do that, they have the amazing ability to simply extend the boundaries of the same box on the fly without ever losing a certain accessibility or pushing them self or the listener off that self indulgent cliff. The latest release Small Places may well be not only the best example of what I mean but perhaps Formanek's finest work to date. The follow up to Formanek's ECM debut as a leader, The Rub and Spare Change features the same all star line up of Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Craig Taborn on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums and shruti box and is a natural evolution to where critically acclaimed The Rub and Spare Change left off. Small Place's compositions and improvisational make up are sonic synchronicity with a pulse. An ambient atmosphere with rich melodic flavor and a rhythmic sense of urgency one can feel in their soul. A dynamic excursion into a harmonic world of possibilities.

A rare combination of a working band with four distinct individual voice that weave in and around each other while challenging each member to fine their own lyrical path. "Seeds and the Birdman" is a smoldering tune with an open ended swing and a mysterious dynamic tension created in particular by pianist Craig Taborn. "Parting Ways" is an 18 minute epic with the band dialed in with intensity and that elusive lyrical sense of purpose and direction that often eludes similar quartets. While Formanek and Tim Berne play as though they were twin sons of different mothers, the rhythm section of Taborn on piano and drummer Gerald Cleaver are not to be outdone in the ability to shift their dynamics on the fly while fitting in each composition like missing puzzle pieces. "Small Places" opens the release with Taborn and alto saxophone titan Tim Berne who swings from a place far deeper than one can imagine. The percussive articulation of the opening sets up a mysterious melodic anticipation before Taborn sets out on his own sonic exploratory of harmonic genius. As a rule critics should tread carefully when using words such as genius or brilliant but how does one completely ignore the blatantly obvious? A shared perspective is all I offer. The closing tune "Soft Reality" is where the artistry of Formanek truly shines. A wistful tune with a mysterious haze envelopes the listener with Formanek's zen like approach of no notes wasted, less is more and every note counts. The organic depth of this composition borders on the neo-classical with a beauty that defies accurate description. Berne joins in and reaches sonic heights that most alto players or saxophonists in general can work a career for and never achieve.

ECM is well known for pristine sound and a virtual sonic ebb and flow indicative of the artist featured on the release in question. Small Places is Michael Formanek's compositional and performance journey into a new realm. Small Places contains an ebb and flow within individual tunes that are as emotional and evocative as the legendary cover art ECM is known for. When held up to critical review, Small Places is literally the perfect recording.

Tracks: Small Places; Pong; Parting Ways; Rising Tensions And Awesome Light; Slightly Off Axis; Seeds And Birdman; Wobble And Spill; Soft Reality.

Personnel: Tim Berne: alto saxophone; Craig Taborn; piano; Michael Formanek: double-bass; Gerald Cleaver: drums, shruti box.


Formanek, Quartet
October 2012 Concert Dates

October 2&3            New York, NY          Jazz Standard
October 4                 Boston, MA               Regattabar
October 5                 Brattleboro, VT       Open Music Collective
October 6                 Baltimore, MD         Windup Space
October 7                 Philadelphia, PA     Art Alliance