For four decades, Michael Formanek has been a fixture on the international jazz scene as a bassist, composer and improvisor, comfortable in any idiom. This Saturday, September 23rd, Formanek will convene his working quartet at The Jazz Gallery for two sets. We caught up with him to talk about his approaches to writing for this group, and to improvising more generally; excerpts of our conversation are below.
The Jazz Gallery: First, I wanted to just ask you about what music you’re going to be playing at this show.
Michael Formanek: It’s going to be a combination of some new music and older pieces for this group. I’m doing a few different groups now, but this is one quartet that I’m working on, and so there’ll definitely be some new music for that group. There’ll be a few pieces that I have that I’ve played in some different versions that are unrecorded, some recorded music, probably one or two things from one of my other groups, depending on how I structure the sets. And there’ll be a lot of improvisation, so you never want to let the music get much in the way of all the possibilities.
TJG: The quartet is such a fierce group of improvisers, so I’m sure it’s really dynamic playing together.
MF: Definitely. Some of my favorite musicians, of course.
TJG: How do you approach composing for a group where you know going in improvisation will feature heavily?
MF: Well, the main thing for me is to consider, in most cases when I’m writing for a group, the people. I consider things that I know that they do incredibly well, and also things sometimes that I might want to push a little different, in one way or the other. Just to kind of set up certain kinds of challenges that might make it a little more interesting, not just a complete improv gig. The compositions, I really do try to think about kind of getting things going certain ways, and structuring things enough, but not too much. I think it’s important to be willing to let the improvisers sense things a certain way, so I don’t think of things being completely finished until they’re actually played. And even then it’s different and evolving, as a process. That’s sort of what I think about.
TJG: That would make it different too, the live versus recorded iterations of the music.
MF: Yeah, definitely. I mean, just in terms of how you want to let things grow and develop over time, it doesn’t have to be so different than recorded versions, but oftentimes that is going to be the case.
TJG: How do you approach leading the group?
MF: In different groups, it kind of depends on the people involved sometimes, because I do like to get things going in such a way that there doesn’t have to be a lot of direction in the course of the actual performance. People have things they can get to, and they can start when they want to start, so everyone gets a little more directly involved in the composition, in the way the thing unfolds. To begin with whichever instrument, I could start something, but musically it might eventually move into another section, or move into another part of a piece. In some cases I can give that starting composition to somebody else, also for me it becomes a little irrelevant who’s the leader as much as I set up the problem and the situation, I try to pick the basic material we’re dealing with, in such a way that involves it being as natural as possible. And so in the best case scenario I’m just not thinking about that part of it at all.