Michael Formanek Meets ECM

Michael FormanekThe Rub and Spare Change (ECM, 2010)

It’s good to see Michael Formanek get so much critical praise for this album. Down Beat gave it five stars and put it on the Best-of-2010 list. The Village Voice poll ranked it 27th overall, with nine critics placing it in their Top 10s and Ed Hazell assigning it No. 1 status.

I’m not sure any of Formanek’s other albums are available, save the solo bass outing Am I Bothering You? So, it’s especially nice to see his music getting some ink.

A lot of the attention has to do with the record being on ECM, although it’s interesting to note that this album was recorded without an ECM deal. ECM’s Manfred Eicher later mixed the album at Avatar Studios, a fave ECM haunt.

Whether it’s inherent to the music or a trick of the mixing, this album certainly sounds like an ECM record, as you can hear on the promo video (which I’d embedded in a September post). That’s the track “Twenty Three Neo.” The piano has a crystalline air, and Gerald Cleaver‘s drums rely on lots of light cymbal taps, that placid wood-on-metal sound that’s so ECM. Even when Cleaver gets ferocious, as on “Jack’s Last Call,” he’s pushed back, so as not to overwhelm.

Craig Taborn‘s piano work is amazing, spinning away at computer-like speeds. He carves a fleet solo on “Inside the Box,” and he’s a monster toward the end of “Tonal Suite,” where he’s hammering away at an irregularly regular theme while also soloing with the right hand. Every jazz pianist can do hand independence, but something about Taborn’s playing here seems like it’s slipped in from another dimension.  I went back to check on Feign, the 2005 Tim Berne trio album where Taborn’s on acoustic piano throughout, and traces of the same strong hand independence are there, so — I guess I’ve proven I’m an unobservant idiot.

With Berne (sax) and Taborn on board, it’s fair to wonder if the soloing sections might end up sounding like a Tim Berne album themselves. I mean, you put the same people together in an improvising-friendly combination enough times, and you’d wonder if the output would all take on the same tint. There are moments of similarity. On “My First Phone” on Feign, an open-ended, floating piano pattern backs a poking, staccato Berne solo; the whole moment could probably be inserted somewhere into The Rub. But overall, Feign has more of an attack posture. Understandably, the pieces tend to be written with a sax-driven theme in mind, and Tom Rainey’s drums are more of a co-leading instrument, whereas Cleaver on The Rub takes a lighter, tactile approach.

As for the composing itself, Formanek goes with a suite-like approach, with one long theme after another, spread apart by well-knit group improvising spaces. Quirky time signatures abound. As bassist for Tim Berne’s Bloodcount in the ’90s, Formanek got a lot of experience with these kinds of blueprints, but the composing certainly shows his own mark, in elements such as the swinging shuffle of “Inside the Box” or the insistent, thick piano chords of “Too Big To Fail.” It’s good to hear his compositions again, and he’s found a fertile environment for letting them bloom.