Who saw this one coming? The majority of Michael Formanek’s releases so far have been small group sessions. His recent works as a leader include late 90s solo and duo recordings for Tim Berne’s Screwgun imprint, and two really superb quartet albums for ECM, The Rub and Spare Change (2010) and Small Places (2012). And now there’s this, The Distance, featuring an 18-piece ensemble dubbed Kolossus.
Formanek avowedly assembled this wryly-named group to break big band conventions, but he acknowledges innovations in the sphere by Duke Ellington, Sun Ra, Charles Mingus, Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill. Olivier Messiaen is also cited as an influence, specifically those of his works for church organ.
In Formanek’s own words: “I wanted a large, rich, chewy sound with this music…a lot of different colours and textures, with some sharp edges occasionally.” So he allowed plenty of freedom, both through his scores and session organisation, trusting in his musicians, mostly New Yorkers, to put their own stamp on music he wrote second-guessing how their personalities might come to bear.
Formanek has little if any recorded history with some of the players, such as reedist Oscar Noriega, pianist Kris Davis and marimbist Patricia Brennan; but conductor Mark Helias is a fellow bassist and longtime friend, and saxophonist Tim Berne is a longstanding collaborator, having played on almost all of Formanek’s early 90s recordings for Soul Note and Enja.
One of five reed players on this date, Berne plays not his usual alto but baritone sax, as he did on those early Formanek sessions. In the 90s, he recruited both Formanek and another of Ensemble Kolossus’ reed players, Chris Speed, for his Blood Count ensemble, and Formanek later recruited Berne’s Hardcell trio to make the quartet for his first two ECM dates. Elsewhere, Formanek features on several sessions led by the Ensemble Kolossus’ Dave Ballou, and currently plays with the ensemble’s guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara in a cooperative trio, Thumbscrew.
The meat of the album is an hour-long suite titled “Exoskeleton” and its stand-alone prelude. But it opens with the short, atmospheric title cut, on which Brian Settles’ tenor sax takes the melodic lead, combining in fuzzy lustrousness with Davis’ lucid piano and other reeds close-mic’d for breath sounds, all swished gently along by Tomas Fujiwara’s brushed percussion.
It’s a gentle introduction. Formanek then begins the Prelude with a solo, the plush elasticity of his bass contrasting with airy woodwinds before flinty piano and cymbals introduce soft unison horns. Then the piano solos with only bass and drums for accompaniment, and a hot, dry simoom of animation brings a sudden rise in temperature. Before the nine minutes are up, there’s a meaty contrapuntal passage with unison ranks against riffing reeds – the first real ‘big band’ sounds, before stabbing brass charts introduce “Exoskeleton Part I – Impenetrable”.
The bright vamp and alto sax on this cut gloss a swirl of percussion and guitar textures. Instrumentation is constantly in flux. Unison horn charts frame movements, and a vamp on “Part II – Beneath the Shell” evokes a cool retro vibe, Formanek having fun with the form and casting allusions as Chris Speed’s tenor and Kirk Knuffke solo in sultry classical vein, and Mary Halvorson plays some nice distorted-mirror reflections on soul jazz. Then suddenly, in the transition to “Part III – @heart” all our coordinates are upended, Ben Gerstein’s trombone is out in space, and everything sounds alien and disassociated.
So the Kolossus may have something close to a standard big band’s instrumentation, but it isn’t navigating by the usual charts, and isn’t pegged to melody or syncopation. Formanek’s score and the lacunae within it have engendered something more kaleidoscopic, elements in shape-shifting alignments and juxtapositions.
But there’s enough pulse and crisp, snappy exuberance along the way to keep everything in focus. “Part IV – Echoes” provides just such ballast at the heart of the suite, but it’s yoked together with “Part V – Without Regrets”, where Halvorson makes things deliciously slippery again – her foregrounded and extended solo spot, its fallout and elaboration, is one of the standout features of the set.
Low-end saxophones, brass, bass and drums all feature, compacted but individuated, on the riffing, rumbling, well-titled “Part VI – Shucking while Driving”, piling up while collectively chewing over who’s soloing, then coming together to steamroller into another suddenly weightless space, “Part VII – A Reptile Dysfunction”, where they cool off to underpin an energised, allusively eclectic dance of chamber jazz instrumentation – marimba, drums, clarinet and piano.
“Part VII – Metamorphic” begins with a collective open-form improvisation by the full ensemble, which resolves beautifully into a feature for trumpeter Ralph Alessi, then in freewheeling communion with the leader’s bass before a reprise of “Shucking while Driving”‘s unifying ostinatos.
The Distance is hugely rewarding, big fun and fascinating by turns, and substantially expands on Formanek’s ECM quartet blueprint and all those acknowledged precedents. The ensemble has a big band’s heft for sure, with particular riches of timbre in the low end, but also a dextrousness and cogency that lets all of its members’ individualities count for something: a magnificent piece of work.
Mark Helias conductor; Ralph Alessi, Dave Ballou & Shane Endsley trumpets; Kirk Knuffke cornet; Oscar Noriega alto saxophone, clarinet, bass clarinet; Loren Stillman alto saxophone, flute; Brian Settles tenor saxophone, flute; Chris Speed tenor saxophone, clarinet; Tim Berne baritone saxophone; Alan Ferber, Ben Gerstein & Jacob Garchik trombones; Jeff Nelson bass and contrabass trombones; Kris Davis piano; Patricia Brennan marimba; Mary Halvorson guitar; Michael Formanek double bass; Tomas Fujiwara drums.
Buy The Distance direct from ECM.