Michael Formanek’s Ensemble Kolossus – The Distance

the distance(ECM)

This is a mighty step forward from the double bass player whose previous two ECM albums featured a quartet with Tim Berne on alto saxophone. Berne is here again, this time on baritone, but he and Formanek are joined by 16 other musicians to form the ensemble with the tongue-in-cheek moniker.

These players include Oscar Noriega and Chris Speed in the saxophone section, and Ralph Alessi and Dave Ballou in the trumpets, Mary Halvorson on guitar and Kris Davis on piano. The whole thing is conducted by Mark Helias.

The writing is most impressive. The first tones we hear on the title track are unexpectedly lush and harmonically conventional but they soon expand into more expansive, stretching, unexpected chord shapes with Brian Settles emerging as the tenor saxophone soloist. It’s a relatively gentle introduction into the meat of the album, the Exoskeleton suite – eight parts preceded by a prelude – which makes up the rest of the album.

Ensemble Kolossus

Ensemble Kolossus

The parts have names like Beneath The Shell, Shucking While Jiving, A Reptile Dysfunction and @heart, and each has featured solo improvisers as well as fairly formal composed sections, though even when it’s all written there is that marvellous sense of looseness we have come to expect from the best jazz orchestras.

Formanek builds on a lot of the big band writing that has gone before him, from Ellington through Mingus and Sun Ra to Braxton and Threadgill, and I even thought I heard a bit of Maynard Ferguson punch at one point. As with those forebears, the harmony happily moves from the tonal to the atonal, or from almost pictorial to almost abstract.

Inclusion of Patricia Brennan on marimba, and use of contrabass trombone along with the customary doubling on flutes and clarinets, gives a wide range of timbres, and adds to the lushness of parts of the suite. One minute we’re in angular Braxton territory, the next the woodwinds are singing and the trombones are woozy in their swing. The low end richness of the ensemble is particularly satisfying – which I suppose is to be expected from a bass man.

The soloists are all strong, naturally, and it’s a particular treat to have Halvorson in there. She is a fascinating player, always adding the unexpected and making it sound absolutely fitting, whether soloing or comping.

Ensemble Kolossus is making a large contribution already to the burgeoning big band landscape of the 21st century. Even when it is flying its historical flags it sounds like nothing but itself. A hugely rewarding listen.



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  1. Michael Formanek’s “The Distance” Receives Multiple Reviews, 5 Stars in Downbeat Magazine, New Concert Dates « The Peabody Post
  2. 2016 Festive Fifty – 20-11 – thejazzbreakfast

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