The Distance represents a grand creative leap for bassist-composer Michael Formanek, following two widely lauded ECM releases featuring his quartet with Tim Berne, Craig Taborn and Gerald Cleaver. The new album showcases his texturally rich compositions for the dynamic 18-piece big band he has playfully dubbed Ensemble Kolossus. The project saw some of the most distinctive musicians on the New York scene bonding to realize Formanek’s epic design, as he re-imagined what a big band can be. Channelling sounds from the classic to the modern, he also composed for individually expressive soloists in the Ellingtonian tradition. Along with the dark-hued romanticism of the title track, The Distance features the “Exoskeleton” suite – a kaleidoscopic musical experience in which Formanek’s bold, beautiful vision for 21st-century large-ensemble jazz comes vibrantly to life.
Both The Rub and Spare Change (2010) and Small Places (2012), Formanek’s two previous ECM albums, received rare five-star reviews in DownBeat magazine. In conceiving The Distance, Formanek was inspired sonically by such far-flung sources as the massively resonant chords in Messiaen’s organ works and the expansive jazz orchestrations of Charles Mingus, Sun Ra, Anthony Braxton and Henry Threadgill. As The New York Times described it, Formanek’s music is “graceful in its subversions, even sumptuous.”
Despite having great respect for the craft of big-band writing, Formanek admits that he has never been especially interested in the traditional style, “because it’s just been done so well so many times before,” he says. “But I wanted a large, rich, chewy sound with this music – and the ensemble’s rhythm section is particularly big, with piano, marimba, guitar, bass and drums. I also wanted a lot of different colours and textures, with some sharp edges occasionally. With the way this group works, there’s a lot of written material but also a lot of freedom in how we get from one point to the next. Things are riskier than with the usual big band.”
Formanek has long histories with many of the players in Ensemble Kolossus, having played alongside Berne not only in his recent small bands but also in the saxophonist’s ’90s ensemble Blood Count (which also included reed man Chris Speed). The bassist plays with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara in the cooperative trio Thumbscrew, while trumpeter Dave Ballou is a fellow Baltimore resident and occasional band mate. Among Formanek’s other connections, Ensemble Kolossus conductor Mark Helias is a longtime instrumental peer. The fellow virtuoso bassists have known each other since the late ’70s and have recently paired onstage for rare bass duets. “Mark was such a positive force on this record,” Formanek explains. “It was wonderful to have a musical mind like his to help keep the music on track while I concentrated on playing bass in the rhythm section.”
Knowing the sounds and sensibilities of all the players, Formanek conceived the music of The Distance not so much for instruments as for instrumentalists. For example, Halvorson’s guitar helps colour The Distance distinctively, with her shape-shifting chords and cubist solos a key attraction of such pieces as “Without Regrets” in the “Exoskeleton” suite. “This really is an incredible collection of musicians, players with such individual voices,” Formanek says. “Someone like Chris Speed plays chord changes on tenor sax in a way that’s so personal, fresh and full of ideas. Writing for players like these, I was obviously open to being surprised, although I was surprised by how much I was surprised. Trombonist Ben Gerstein is one of those musicians who always plays the unexpected, even when you know his palette of sounds.”
Most of the band’s players are drawn from the teeming New York scene, a fact that lent a certain energy but also a generosity to the Brooklyn recording sessions, according to Formanek. “More than ever, there are great jazz players everywhere across the U.S. and the world,” he says. “But the intensity of living and working in New York City means that not only is the level of everything these New York improvisers do of such high quality; it’s the quickness with which they grasp where the music is going, their focus and concentration. They’re great people, too, and even though the scale of the band and music was challenging, things were relaxed. It felt like we were kindred spirits, with a common purpose.
“Everyone united behind this music – and I’m thrilled with how it all came out,” Formanek concludes. “This album feels like a high point in my body of work.”