From L to R: Tony Malaby, Michael Formanek, Kris Davis, Ches Smith. Photo by John Rogers.
Michael Formanek’s approach to jazz and the double bass has changed and evolved over the decades. The ‘70s saw Formanek on the road with Tony Williams and Joe Henderson, and the ‘80s featured engagements with Stan Getz, Gerry Mulligan, Fred Hersch and Freddie Hubbard. By the ‘90s, Formanek had become a central figure in New York’s creative jazz scene. Today, Formanek’s many projects include Thumbscrew, a co-lead Brooklyn trio with Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, as well as a steady quartet with Tim Berne on alto saxophone, Craig Taborn on piano and Gerald Cleaver on drums, whose 2010 and 2012 albums earned five-star reviews in DownBeat.
Elusion Quartet, one of Formanek’s more recent projects, features the dynamic personnel of saxophonist Tony Malaby, pianist Kris Davis, and drummer/percussionist/vibraphonist Ches Smith. The Elusion Quartet will celebrate the release of their album Time Like This at their upcoming Jazz Gallery show. Published by Swiss label Intakt Records and recorded at Oktaven Audio by Ryan Streber, the album was a vehicle for exploring “a more direct connection to emotions” according to Formanek. We spoke with Formanek about how he and the band put this new music together.
The Jazz Gallery: I know you recorded the album in February, but October somehow feels like the perfect time to listen to it. It’s mesmerizing, ever-changing, expressive, it reflects the season somehow. What are your feelings, listening back now?
Michael Formanek: Well, those are all qualities that I feel all the time [laughs]. That music was recorded in the midst of a series of big personal life changes. We were in the process of leaving Baltimore where we’d lived for many years, moving north. I was deciding whether to leave my teaching position where I’d been for a long time, moving back into the playing and composing part of my life, which I was always doing, but was having to work it out with my teaching schedule. Ultimately, the timing of everything felt right. So these feelings are less seasonal and more about general life change, and I think the album reflects that, along with things happening in the world every day.
TJG: More on the ideas behind the album soon, but in listening, it sounds like there is a good bit of formal logic in terms of pacing and structure in improvised sections. What did the preparation look like for the project, in terms of talking through material with the group?
MF: The album features such a strong group of improvisers and composers, and at this point, it’s almost a given that the majority of the people I play with are going to recognize how musical elements in motion can move from one place to another. Rarely, I might say something, “Maybe this would be better if we moved between these things a little differently,” or “This doesn’t have to be quite so intense here,” just general notes while rehearsing. For me, the challenge in composing for improvisers is in the balance of providing the right amount of material, in the sense of composition and structure, without impeding the flow of what can simply happen. For me, in the case of Time Like This, I was trying to write a bit less than I usually do, to give more room for things to happen.
TJG: On one of the tracks, “Culture of None,” I love the duo bass and drum introduction, and the ensuing melodic lines that emerge so naturally. I was almost surprised when I heard you playing something close to a walking bassline, and Kris Davis playing a linear piano solo, something I don’t often hear. Do you remember some of your intentions going into the track?
MF: That track was a tricky one, because it basically started with that hand drum part. There are these rhythms and mixed meters, with nothing in even time, so for me, it was about looking for patterns and phrases. I started to assign pitches, which is where the bassline or bass melody came from. Once that evolved, I wrote the secondary part, the more melodic part. Only at a certain point later on did it become clear that there was an even 3/8 thing that moves through the whole form. That was a result, a realization, rather than a starting point. The organic part of that piece was that I was indulging these odd groupings of odd rhythms, conceiving of it as a drum part, but thinking more abstractly, it culminated in this even, swinging three feel. That evolved more during the improvisations. I didn’t say “We have to get to this feel,” and in fact, we did a few takes of this tune, where different things happened organically. We started with one idea, improvised, and naturally moved to another. I’m always happy when certain things evolve that didn’t necessarily unfold from their logical starting point.