Michael Formanek returns to ECM with the quartet that recorded his 2010 label debut, The Rub and Spare Change, to such great acclaim, and he’s produced an even stronger album this time around.
As on The Rub, Formanek’s compositions fully exploit the brilliance of his formidable band, not least that of its pianist Craig Taborn.
On the slightly melancholic “Parting Ways” Taborn’s piano and Formanek’s bowed bass undertow stir dark emotions, which alto saxophonist Tim Berne works out with restrained passion. The track crystallises and cools to a clear-sighted concision in its final four minutes, and a nuanced, pointillist dance of a duet for bass and drums that acts as a springboard for Berne’s elegant summation.
In the highly melodic intros to the brighter, snappier brace of opening tracks, Berne’s alto imparts a keen edge to Taborn’s rich harmonics. Both Formanek and Taborn have participated in groups dedicated to Berne’s music – Formanek in Bloodcount, Taborn in both Science Friction and Hardcell. All those hours spent attending to his bandmates’ rapport show in the easy loquacity of Formanek’s complex, tailor-made compositional structures. They allow plenty of freedom precisely because Formanek knows what these players can do.
There’s so much space here, you can almost feel fresh air wafting through songs such as the cool, collected “Slightly off Axis”. And in the lengthy “Seeds and Birdman”, when Taborn’s fabulous, clear-sighted piano solo is answered by Berne’s measured response, time seems to be held in suspense.
Drummer Gerald Cleaver also plays alongside Formanek in Jacob Anderskov’s Granular Alchemy, and he’s also shared stages, if not recording dates with Tim Berne too (for choice record dates, check him out, too, on Rodrigo Amado’s Waiting for Adam, Samuel Blaser’s Boundless, and William Parker’s Uncle Joe’s Spirit House, all released in 2010). Here, Cleaver’s light touch on the cymbals are particularly striking, as is the way his drumming works with Taborn’s left hand to insinuate a compulsive rhythm.
The leader’s playing is as impressive as his composition skills. His bass underpins the dry patter of cymbals on first part of “Rising Tensions and Awesome Light” with a resonant pulse that gives Taborn the impetus for his own statement. Everything here is lucid and as logical as it is passionate. The second part of the song has Berne soloing in clear space, following his own sweet logic but never straying out of Formanek’s conceptual frame of reference. When he re-enters, Taborn intuitively knows which contours to follow, and the rhythm team pick Berne up on his return path and shadow him home. It’s the musical equivalent of an outrider bird rejoining its flock; the grace of their coordination is magical.
Tim Berne alto saxophone; Craig Taborn piano; Michael Formanek double bass; Gerald Cleaver drums, shruti box.