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.
TJG: One of the things that’s interesting about your playing, bandwise, is that you’re playing with a lot of different musicians and going a lot of different directions, and also crossing a generational divide that not everyone seems willing to cross.
MF: That’s the sort of the beauty of where things are right now, because I still get to play with some of my immediate colleagues, people who are closer my age—I play with Tim Berne a lot—people that are still relatively close in age, and then there’s the entire world of musicians who are relatively close, four or five years different, early 50s and 40s, and down to people like Devin [Gray] and some of the other musicians I work with who are still in their 20s. It’s such an interesting range of people and musicians, and that’s kind of one of the reasons that I’m spending a lot more time in New York now, partially just to continue to play with that full spectrum of people but also to meet new people.
Playing in bands like Thumbscrew, with Mary Halvorson and Tomas Fujiwara, who are younger than I am—a lot younger than I am [laughs]—but it’s a co-op trio. We go on tour, we do things, and until somebody points out the age difference, it’s something you don’t really think about. Well, they might, but I don’t. You’re just sort of doing your thing, playing, laughing, eating meals, traveling, whatever, and sometimes people point out that there’s a 20 year difference, and you’re like, oh, yeah [laughs]. I just think that’s the beauty of it, and for me to just stay with people that are right in my own age group, I think that’s limited. Why? What’s the point?
I don’t think about it too much, but it makes sense to me to play with everyone. A lot of my friends are in a similar place, but in that way I’m looking at people that I share that with.
TJG: How do teaching and playing connect for you?
MF: They’re totally integrated in some ways, because I really do love to teach. I sometimes kind of separate the two things a little bit. I do play with students, and I like to be involved in playing with people and then sort of being able to help talk about things, but I’ve always had this thing that when I play I only want to relate to the musicians in a completely open, democratic environment. So it’s not like I’m sitting there having to be judging, or being somehow critical, even though when you’re teaching you have to be critical. So I think it’s a balance in general. If I’m just playing with people, younger musicians, I know sometimes people want criticism. I’m a little more hesitant to do that in those situations, but when it’s clearly a teaching situation, a workshop during the summer, or a place where people are specifically there to get insight into something, where they play their instruments well, they do all these things well, but maybe they’re looking more for ideas and strategies and ways of looking at different things, and that’s really fun to teach. I really enjoy that part of it. It gets a little more nuts and bolts sometimes, part teacher part psychologist part all that. But it’s always there, it’s always present because I teach so much, but I’m also perfectly happy being in an environment where that’s not coming into play at all.
TJG: I’m sure it gets different with different ages and what people are looking for.
MF: The other thing too is when I play with someone, I feel a certain way about my playing. I don’t want to necessarily play to set an example or do something, it’s just about playing at that point, that’s where that’s different. Someone like Devin Gray, who you mentioned earlier—he was a student of mine years ago at Peabody, and he came in and was great, he always had this really special thing, but he really developed over the years to become a really great drummer with his own voice, composing for his band. The fact that he was a student of mine at this point I don’t even think of that, I don’t really relate to him on that level so much that I was just like, here’s this friend I have known for years, that I play with.
TJG: What’s coming up next?
MF: This group of people—that’s really important to me, to be able to set up situations like these and explore situations like this show. I was just with Tony Malaby in Argentina doing improv gigs, but we haven’t been in a band like this in a while, and it will be fun to do this kind of thing! Kris Davis I love, Dan Weiss is of course brilliant. That’s kind of the thing right now, and over the next year I have a bunch of different things I want to work on and get going. So I was really happy to get the chance for this show—I’ve only played at The Jazz Gallery a couple times with other peoples’ projects, and I’m really looking forward to being there!
The Michael Formanek Quartet plays The Jazz Gallery on Saturday, September 23rd, 2017. The group features Mr. Formanek on bass, Tony Malaby on saxophones, Kris Davis on piano, and Dan Weiss on drums. Sets are at 7:30 and 9:30 P.M. $22 general admission ($12 for members) for each set. Purchase tickets here.