The first ECM disc from this band, The Rub And Spare Change, released in 2010, received a much-coveted five-star review from the US magazine Downbeat. This disc does not disappoint those with understandably high expectations.
The exceptionally skilful playing of complex written material and inspired improvisations were there in ’10, but while the first album was made without a great deal of preparation, the band has done quite a bit of touring both in the US and in Europe. The quartet also played this album in a New York club before going into the Avatar Studios a year ago now to record it.
Michael Formanek leads from the double bass and composed all the music, Tim Berne is on alto saxophone, Craig Taborn is on piano and Gerald Cleaver is on drums.
The opening title track and the following Pong go some way to pinning the listeners’ ears back, with the almost mathematically constructed melodies worked this way and that, up, down, inside out, and round-about.
To write music that stretches the likes of Taborn and Berne is to get pretty complex and demanding, but Formanek also leaves lots of room for improvisation, albeit sometimes with all kinds of traps and tricky fences to negotiate while letting the imagination roam free-ish.
By the time we get to Parting Ways, the mathematical themes may remain but the mood has slowed and the spaces have opened out a little. Here the accent is on textures and timbres as much as complex harmony. Cleaver has a chance to get atmospheric with his cymbals while Taborn can ruminate in a less oppressive environment, which he does beautifully.
Formanek has said: “For this record, it wasn’t just a great idea – it was a real band.” That is clear from the fact that over-arching this often difficult material is a great feeling of near-telepathy from the musicians. Of course Taborn and Berne are frequent fellow flyers, and Formanek is in Berne’s Bloodcount band, but they all sound even more of one mind than ever here.
The 12-minute Seeds And Birdman begins with an almost bluesy bass line over the drums before Taborn sets up a complementary line in the left hand while tailing Berne’s nervy melody with his right. Then Berne starts the slow burn while Taborn adds dark chords beneath and Cleaver begins to rumble and jitter. Then Taborn is given lots of space to explore every nook and cranny of the melodic and harmonic material Formanek has provided. His sense of structure and space is astounding, as is the sureness of his touch and the clear direction of the path he cuts through the music. Then Berne gets a chance to do the same, and after an increasingly intense building riff there is a cliff-fall ending.
And if Formanek has provided a lot of written music for the band, as in Rising Tensions And Awesome Light, he has also provided a lot of space and freedom, as in Wobble And Spill.
The last tune, Soft Reality, includes some gorgeous arco bass with echoing piano lines against a wash of more arco bass. It’s a fascinating study from quiet reflection to some really intense playing from Berne at his most inspired, while all the while maintaining a kind of balance and stillness, as if a lot of strangely beautiful treasures are being collectively held in the air.
It’s easy amid the brilliance of the other three to take the leader’s role for granted, but Formanek is one of those “invisible hand” bass players who is bringing as much to the others’ playing as he is to his own.
Thoroughly original 21st century jazz from four thoroughly original jazz musicians playing one thoroughly original composer’s music.