On The Cover

Michael Formanek
Going the Distance

By Ken Waxman

Bassist Michael Formanek admits that until recently he never really ‘loved” big band music, even though he had played his share of it during the quarter century he spent in New York before 2003. In Manhattan, as an in-demand sideman, among his other jobs, he put in time with the Mingus big band plus large groups led by pianist Toshiko Akiyoshi and saxophonist Bob Mintzer. But Formanek, 58, who has gigged almost constantly since at 18, in his native San Francisco, he began working with major innovators including drummer Tony Williams and trumpeter Freddie Hubbard, was in NYC closely identified with what he calls “more intense improvisation”. He led his own small acoustic groups and was featured in many so-called downtown bands, most prominently those led by alto saxophonist Tim Berne.

However his enthusiasm for large ensemble forms has heightened over the past few years with the most arresting result The Distance, his new ECM disc recorded by an 18-piece orchestra. Formanek, now a full-time faculty member of the Jazz Studies Department at the Peabody Institute, has composed a series of memorable pieces for some of jazz’s most accomplished players. That band, called Ensemble Kolossus, will play the music from the CD plus more of the bassist’s compositions at The Jazz Standard this month.

“It was a natural evolution”, explains Formanek, who now resides in Towson, Md., near the Baltimore-based Institute, a division of Johns Hopkins University. Besides teaching double bass and jazz history at Peabody, he also directs large and small student ensembles. It was because of the former that his appreciation for the large ensemble sound has grown. “For teaching purposes I began studying lots of scores, doing at lot of listening and dealing with the language of Gil Evans, Sam Rivers, Duke Ellington Jim McNeely and others,” he recalls. After composing music for the student ensembles, as well as some forays into Third Stream-style notation, matching jazz groups with the local Peabody Concert Orchestra, “I decided I wanted to do a project to sum up what I had thought about up until that time.” A residency fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts gave him time to work and most of what became The Distance was created.

At the same time as he conceived of the music, like Ellington, he was composing with certain musicians in mind for each part, with the understanding that their individual approaches would contribute to the overall sound. “I thought of the music together with the people who would play it and best kind of ideas started to unfold,” he reveals. Right now Ensemble Kolossus consists of Loren Stillman on alto saxophone; Oscar Noriega playing alto saxophone, clarinet and bass clarinet; Chris Speed on tenor saxophone and clarinet; Brian Settles on tenor saxophone and flute and Berne playing baritone saxophone. Kirk Knuffke plays cornet; Dave Ballou, Ralph Alessi, Shane Endsley, trumpets; Alan Ferber, Jacob Garchik, Ben Gerstein are the trombonists with Jeff Nelson on and contrabass trombones. The rhythm section is Kris Davis on piano, Mary Halvorson on guitar, Patricia Brennan on marimba; Tomas Fujiwara on drums, Formanek, and Mark Helias as conductor. “The 19th Beatle”, jokes the bassist.

Initially Formanek had tried conducting the band himself, but it was difficult to do from within the ensemble, especially during a recording session. Confident in Helias’ skills, which he had observed first-hand in New York, Formanek asked if he could help out during the two-day recording session and later live dates. “I was able to keep the flow going without getting in the way and keep everyone clear on the forms, as well as shape the performances,” notes Helias. “The band reacts quickly to any needed direction. Fundamentally, my job is to set the tempos where needed, cue formative signposts and listen to the improvisations so that I have a sense of the overall shape of the piece and bring sections in at the appropriate time.” Pointing out that “Mark not only can conduct but knows how to improvise”, Formanek adds that as bassists he and Helias share a particular perspective. “It's all about balance, proportion, and tension and release. He has great instinct, is thoughtful and intuitive and knows at which spots to bring in the band.”

Building on improvisers’ skills, Formanek explains that even the small groups he leads play music with as few cues as possible. Halvorson, who works with the bassist in the Thumbscrew trio with Fujiwara plus the drummer’s The Hook Up group, notes that “In Thumbscrew, all of his compositions for the trio have a strong identity and are really written for the trio members.” As for the larger ensemble, she adds: “I had never heard Michael's big band writing before Ensemble Kolossus, and it felt like I was hearing his composing style magnified and multiplied. The music is masterfully orchestrated and arranged; structured yet open. I try to understand the intention and energy in each piece and do my best to play to that. There’s one Ensemble Kolossus composition where Michael wrote a guitar part for me which he based around a wide leap, triplet-based warm up exercise he always hears me play before gigs. This is a great example of Michael writing to musician's individual styles and interests.”

Although not program music, the compositions on The Distance have some symbolic elements. Even the band’s name, which reflects the colossal undertaking it is, also relates to the powerful image the bassist imagined when he first heard the track “I Am Colossus" performed by the Swedish extreme metal band Meshuggah. Meanwhile “‘Exoskeleton’ refers to that extra layer of emotional armor that some people have that can be difficult to break down. It’s something that I can relate to,” admits Formanek. “‘The Distance’ reflects the same concept of distance between people, but it’s also related to the idea of ‘going the distance’ or going all the way or ‘being in it for the long haul’ kind of cliché.”

Different sections of the compositions are notated to varying degrees. Most of the music is written out, except for the solos; some transitions are more notated than others depending on the section; others are mostly improvised. “The point for me isn’t so much what is written and what isn't but what's the most effective way to handle any given section,” the bassist states. Additionally, while the idea of using marimba in the band not only adds warmer resonation when its range is displayed alongside the reeds, he notes, but having a five-piece rather than the standard three-piece rhythm section links the ensemble to traditional big bands. “I try to create a dialogue between the player as an improviser and me as the writer,” Formanek clarifies. “I write in such a way that makes things work.” That why, for instance, “Exoskeleton” initially didn’t include the “Prelude” section, but it was added just before the recording for greater clarity.

Berne, who has worked with Formanek since the early ‘90s when the bassist was part of the saxophonist’s Bloodcount band and he worked in several Formanek projects, says he wasn’t surprised when he was asked to join Ensemble Kolossus. “Mike’s a great writer and player who is driven by the excitement of making music and taking on new challenges. He really knows how to put together a band and how to orchestrate.” Earlier in the century Berne played baritone saxophone frequently and Formanek must have heard him play “hundreds of times”, he relates, which is how he ended up in that chair. “I’m sort of relieved he didn’t ask me to play lead alto,” Berne jokes. “In the band I play lighter in way, kind of texture upon texture upon texture. I often double with the trombones and the bass. When I play in unison I want the baritone to be noticeable, but not to call attention to it.”

Of course Formanek admits that in adding the responsibility of organizing such a large ensemble to his other commitments is trying. When a recent Baltimore performance was cancelled after the city was blanketed with 29 inches of snow for instance getting it rescheduled took a lot of time. But he’s adamant that he’s as committed to the large group, as his smaller ones.

“When I was coming up music wasn’t formal. It was discovering things, learning from the experiences of playing with people and discovering a lot of music in an informal environment. Now I'm very fortunate to be able to assemble this incredible group of people who happen to be great musicians and make this whole thing happen. What could be better than this? The concept may not be ‘practical’, but it’s hard for me not to accept that I can indulge my fantasy and love these minutes.”

Recommended Listening

Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus – The Distance (ECM 2016)

Mary Halvorson, Michael Formanek, Tomas Fujiwara Thumbscrew – (Cuneiform 2014)

Michael Formanek – Small Place (ECM 2012)

Michael Formanek – The Rub and Spare Change (ECM 2010)

Uri Caine – Gustav Mahler: Dark Flame (Winter & Winter 2003)

Michael Formanek – Am I Bothering You? (Screwgun 1998)

—For The New York City Jazz Record March 2016