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“The Rub and Spare Change” is the remarkable ECM debut of Michael Formanek, creative improvising bassist, resourceful jazz composer, and bandleader able to bring forth inspired performances from his cohorts. The album features a new band which nonetheless draws upon years of shared experiences. When Formanek assembled his quartet for a set at New York City club The Stone in August 2008, the forceful spirit of the performance convinced him that this was an ensemble that needed to be documented on disc. The quartet was duly recorded in June 2009 in Hampton, New Jersey, and the music then mixed with Manfred Eicher at New York’s Avatar Studios, spirit very much intact.

Michael Formanek has played with altoist Tim Berne on many occasions over the last two decades. They first joined forces in the bassist’s project Wide Open Spaces in 1991, and shortly thereafter collaborated in Berne’s Bloodcount band. In and out of each other’s ensembles since then, they’ve also played and recorded as a duo. Formanek has furthermore toured and recorded with projects led, co-led or featuring pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver, and they, in turn, have a long history of mutual collaboration. Cleaver has also played often with Berne, and Taborn has been a member of Berne’s Hard Cell group. (When last heard from on ECM, Berne and Taborn were both members of a David Torn group.)

If the interweaving of individual histories is complex, so is some of the material that Formanek pitches to his musicians. But there is a unanimity and shared sense of purpose in the ways in which they approach the compositions, while Formanek’s writing lucidly combines and contrasts drive, earthiness, propulsive grooves and tight-wound rhythms with a rapid turnover of conceptual ideas. Of the musicians’ self-evident compatibility, he notes, “It definitely helps that there is a lot of history in the different combinations. It means you start out with a strong awareness of everyone’s capabilities, and the trust factor inside the band is very high. I write music for the strengths of the individual players, including material I know they will sound great on, but I also try to direct them to new spaces. Then again, Tim, Craig and Gerald are players who actively seek out challenges and, quite apart from whatever I bring to the table, they will also always want to make a recording experience an event for themselves”.

The compositions trigger highly-focused responses from the players. “Oftentimes, I’ll set up a slow ground pulse and subdivide it a lot of different ways rhythmically, perhaps emphasizing the bottom part of the groove a little more as a piece develops. I was trying to set up situations that would bring out the qualities I especially enjoy when this group of musicians plays together. Sometimes, also, I want to get the structures out of the way when necessary, so as not to stifle the process.” Composition and guided group improvising are complementary work methods here.

The first part of the opening “23 Neo”, is “based off a 23-beat ostinato pattern played mostly by piano and drums. “Simple and harmonically ambiguous,” in Formanek’s estimate. “Its four pitches gave me an idea for a simple scale to use against that, as an experiment with a limitation of pitches to use in the melodies. Tim and I play fragmented melody.” Texturally sparse, the improvisation evolves into “Neo”, a second ostinato piece.

“The Rub and Spare Change” similarly links two compositions. Part one, “The Rub” alludes to teenage years in San Francisco, with memories of listening to Tower of Power and playing with other exponents of Oakland funk. “I don’t play that music any more, but part of its feel has stayed with me. I wanted to get some of that peppery groove in there but also a different kind of tension with the use of harmonic ‘rubs’.” “Spare Change”, by contrast, is very open, with melodic signposts to set up some provisional structural rallying points along the way

“Inside the Box” develops from a four-bar pattern, 4-4-4 and 3 beats, with emphasis on its rhythmic rather than harmonic underpinnings. “Sometimes I’ll set up rhythmic structures which can be really free but maintain a focus for the improvisation and bring out more of the rhythmic fabric of a piece.“

The epic Tonal Suite (17 minutes long) is a combination of three pieces, starting with an initial melody whose relentless eighth note “almost non-tonal line” moves against intersecting grooves that converge and diverge. Chromatic twists and turns distinguish the piece’s songlike middle-section, while the closing section explores abstractions of funk in 5/4 and 7/4.

“Jack’s Last Call” references the final words of a friend who passed away suddenly last April, before Formanek could respond to a last answering machine message. “As a composition it’s very simple, a theme of just a few notes. For me, it is primarily an emotional statement, about a subject very much on my mind when we made the recording.”

“Too Big To Fail”, with its topical title from the era of the Wall Street crisis, sets up a larger than life duet for Berne and Taborn in its early moments, both of them really going for broke.

These are a few of the things happening in the action-packed course of Michael Formanek’s ECM debut. The emphasis on rhythmic drive and melodic invention may sometimes bring the furious creativity of vintage Mingus to mind, and it seems fitting that Formanek’s resumé has included a period with the Mingus Big Band. Then again, he has played in so many contexts – starting with a precocious gig with Tony Williams Lifetime when only 18. Along the way he has worked and gigged with a great range of old masters from Lee Konitz to Joe Maneri via Joe Henderson, Freddie Hubbard and Stan Getz, as well as virtually the whole roll call of contemporary NYC progressive players.

In the 1990s, amongst other recordings, he released a string of leader dates for Enja and a solo bass disc for Berne’s Screwgun label. However “The Rub and Spare Change” is the first album to be issued under Formanek’s name since 1998. In the first decade of our present century he has been busy at the Peabody Conservatory of Music in Baltimore where he directs the Peabody Jazz Orchestra. In 2007 the orchestra premiered Formanek’s composition “The Open Book”. Other current activities include work with Tim Berne’s Bloodcount band, reunited after a ten-year hiatus.

The Formanek Quartet with Berne, Taborn and Cleaver plays on the US East coast in October. A European tour for the quartet is currently being set up for April 2011.

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