Interview: Michael Formanek

Kevin Whitehead

By Kevin Whitehead

on 12.03.12 in Interviews

Small Places

Michael Formanek

Michael Formanek is one of jazz’s formidable bassists: fast and limber with a full expressive sound, instantly responsive to whatever his fellow improvisers invent on the spot, and able to sing for himself. He’s also a master of fiendishly involved, mutating rhythms, tossed off like they’re no big deal.

You can hear all that in his powerfully resourceful quartet with old ally Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Gerald Cleaver on drums, and the apparently limitless virtuoso Craig Taborn on piano. Their tough and tender fall 2012 release Small Places, with its aural de Chirico colonnades and Escher staircases, is their second for ECM, sequel to 2010′s acclaimed The Rub and Spare Change.

Starting in his teens in the 1970s and into the ’80s Formanek played straight-ahead jazz with the likes of Chet Baker, George Coleman and Freddie Hubbard before he got deep into New York’s downtown scene. He began stepping up as a leader with a pair of frisky/melodic/noisy quintet albums from the early ’90s, followed by two colorful septet dates studded with distinguished peers, among them Dave Douglas, Frank Lacy, Steve Swell, Marty Ehrlich and Marvin “Smitty” Smith.

eMusic’s Kevin Whitehead spoke with Formanek about his recordings as bandleader just before Thanksgiving, at his home outside Baltimore.

When we made this appointment you said something like, “I just had two gigs in a row where I had to play 4/4. Enough of that for awhile.” Isn’t walking the meat of jazz bass playing?

The meat and potatoes. I have nothing against walking bass, but I like it best when it feels like the right thing to do as opposed to the only thing – those Freddie Redd and Matt Wilson gigs were really fun to do. But now, I’m less likely to put myself in situations where I have to do that. The feel and emotion generated is what’s important; when the music wants forward motion and propulsion, there’s always more than one way to get it. Other instruments can carry that 4/4 feeling. Or you can play other kinds of phrases in that situation.

There are plenty of odd meters on Small Places, as on The Rub and Spare Change, but weird time signatures never sound like the whole point. For one thing, your slippery patterns aren’t easy to count out.

I may have gone as far in that direction as I can go, at this point. “Small Places” has one of the most complex rhythm cycles, but all those intricate metrical things, the fast odd subdivisions, relate in my mind to one long beat – a pattern that doesn’t always repeat perfectly. The beat is very precise at some times, less so at others – a very big groove you can relax with a bit, though one 9/32 bar threw rehearsals into chaos.

The layers of rhythm are like different size gears moving at different speeds. “Rising Tensions and Awesome Light” starts in 4/4, then goes to a very slow 5/2, with fast-moving eighth notes over the top. Gerald plays the eighth note rhythm on cymbals, but the real pulse is very slow.

I’ve used that idea a lot on the last few years – literally keeping two, or even three, rhythms going at the same time. In contemporary music, that’s not at all unusual. In jazz, it’s less common. But with improvisers, I like to set certain ideas in motion. It creates drama. Things can come completely unhinged, and then reassemble.

Do you worry about what you can play when you write it?

I don’t write it as if I’m the bass player. But I might dare to write things now I wouldn’t have five years ago. I write a little above what I know I can play.

On “Pong,” there are these leaping unison figures for bass and piano. As the bassist, you really have to nail those intervals to get that cavernous merged-timbre effect.

I like a big sound, and you get it with that doubling of parts. And since Craig can do that and one or two other things at the same time…

Was “Parting Ways” designed to bring out the 19th-century romantic in your piano player?

The thing about Craig is, he really knows all that music. You can prompt him in that direction in subtle ways. “Parting Ways” is the closest I ever came to trying to squeeze emotion into a piece of paper. There’s such a filtration process before the music gets written, but this time I tried to keep that emotional quality at the forefront. Even Tim – there’s a totally improvised moment where he sounds like Mahler.

For all Berne’s gifts as an improviser, he sounds great just playing a tune. He makes difficult lines sing.

He has stretched himself a lot. When we started playing together in the early ’90s, he hadn’t done much as a sideman, but he really opened himself up to that. He brings a lot to the table, and comes away with a lot. His melodic playing has become much more refined and confident. On “Soft Reality,” crying toward the end, his playing has an eastern double reed quality I hadn’t heard before.

Like you, Gerald Cleaver plays odd meters without being obvious about it. He may sound like he’s just playing free accents.

He is a master of that. Amazing. Aside from that, they’re all great improvisers. When we play together, the music always feels new and complex.

Jazz musicians have explored harmony and melody so much, but with rhythm there’s still a frontier there. The way complex meters are used now, the ease with which people can navigate them – it wasn’t always like that. Most odd-time playing before 1990 reminded me of a three-legged dog: like it was supposed to be in 4, but with a beat missing. I learned from a lot of drummer friends that those meters could be much rounder. Or look at Elliott Carter’s music.

I don’t think I ever used Carter’s metric modulations literally, but I’ve stolen rhythmic ideas from him. I’ll get a general idea of how something works – like Messiaen and his synthetic scales – without necessarily worrying about how the composer used them. The more I learn, the more I can incorporate into a personal system.

Did Tim Berne influence your long pieces that begin in one place and end in another?

I probably got that from listening to his music, even before making my first CD. I was looking for ways to make the music personal, and Joey Baron recommended I check him out. I liked the ways his pieces unfolded, and started working along those lines. Playing with him definitely reinforced that. The quartet Bloodcount must have played hundreds of gigs, at the Knitting Factory and on tour.

Bloodcount’s Berne, Jim Black and Chris Speed are on your ’96 recording Nature of the Beast, but the core band is two brass and two rhythm, with Dave Douglas, Steve Swell and Jim.

Before that album I’d made Low Profile [1993, for seven pieces] and really liked the sound when the ensemble broke down to just trumpet, trombone, bass and drums. The horns don’t fill up the overtones, like saxophones with their rich harmonics. It could all sound so clean and well-defined. So I started building some new music around that sound. Then I thought of adding Tony Malaby on tenor a little, and then Tim, and finally Chris’s clarinet at the last minute. (We’d been rehearsing for the date at Jim Black’s and heard him practicing upstairs. I did like the idea of having all the Bloodcount guys on it.)

With two brass and two rhythm, you get a certain kind of sonic thing; you can almost visualize the shapes. I was thinking about it architecturally.

Like the floor plan of a church.

Or the McDonald’s arches.

That was your last date as leader before The Rub and Spare Change 13 years later.

People have written that I didn’t do much after 2000, around when I started commuting to teach at Peabody in Baltimore. But I worked with pianist Dave Burrell a lot, and we made a good record, Momentum. I also made a whole bunch of SteepleChase CDs led by trumpeter Dave Ballou or pianist Harold Danko that I think are really good. And a bunch of stuff with pianist Jacob Anderskov.

Your first two early-’90s albums stand up very well, with catchy or dippy tunes like “Yahoo Justice” and “Coffee Time,” New Orleans funk and Braxtonian angularity, and that raucous quintet with alto sax, violin, electric guitar, bass and drums. At the same time, you were playing very refined jazz in Fred Hersch’s trio.

I wasn’t listening to Braxton, but Schnittke – probably not understanding it, but getting the idea.

Playing with Fred, I learned a lot about music and myself – learned I didn’t want to be in situations where I always had to be that careful. Sometimes I had to fight the Evil Mike from coming out. When that happened Fred would say, Mike is being Willful.

Tim Berne ended up in the quintet, but the altoist on your debut Wide Open Spaces is Greg Osby.

I liked him a lot from playing with him on Franco Ambrosetti’s Movies, Too. I was clueless about the M-BASE thing, but I had checked out his recordings. Basically that band was people I liked. Drummer Jeff Hirshfield and I had been working with Fred a lot, and we’d get together and workshop ideas. Guitarist Wayne Krantz is such a powerful rhythm player with a great sense of timing.

The combination could seem a little bizarre, but the front line of alto and Mark Feldman’s violin made perfect sense to me. I had been trying to learn about different kinds of music, scoring student films with small groups, and was getting into the habit of writing for strings. All those small pieces we played came from not knowing how to develop or end anything – the Monty Python problem.

When the band started getting gigs, Greg wasn’t always available. I used Marty Ehrlich and Andy Laster, who were great. But with Tim – he and Wayne hit it off, and with Feldman in there too, it unleashed the band’s comic side. We did a West Coast tour, and then the CD Extended Animation, three grueling days in the studio. I was trying to get everything perfect, but in the end the early takes were better.

I have to say I’m really proud of those records. There’s nothing I’d do differently. Had I tried to make records designed to be more “successful,” I doubt they’d have turned out so well.

Osby’s sound is well matched to yours, playing the melody in unison on “Cloak and Dagger,” and you have similar ways of approaching the chords from odd angles.

He does have that weird way through changes. We got to record again later with Gary Thomas.

The album Pariah’s Pariah from ’97, for two saxes and two rhythm. A nice example of the bass used as a percussion instrument.

I didn’t know John Arnold, who had a fusion kind of drum set, a sound I wasn’t used to hearing at that time. Maybe I was trying to impose…[shakes his head] I was being Willful.