Michael Formanek’s The Rub and Spare Change became one of 2010’s critical sleeper hits, garnering massive praise. The real revelation was that the bassist’s ease and strength as a leader wasn’t already known on a wider level. Formanek actually released albums under his own name in the ’90s, but he’s probably best known as a sideman in groups like Tim Berne’s Bloodcount. Either way, he has returned with an effort that is a worthy follow-up to his last album.
Alto saxophonist Berne, pianist Craig Taborn and drummer Gerald Cleaver all return to the fold, and recorded this session following a tour that helped the music take root. Formanek’s writing varies widely throughout the album. “Parting Ways” lasts 18 minutes, traversing various sections and finally ending when least expected. At five minutes, the title track builds on a rhythmic hook, which Taborn digs into in his solo, while “Soft Reality” closes the album with bowed bass leading the music.
On Berne’s ECM album Snakeoil earlier this year, the bite of his horn was softened a bit by Manfred Eicher’s production, giving it a more searching feeling. Eicher uses the same approach on Small Places, which adds to the nuances of the compositions. The effect does not soften the attack of the whole quartet, though. “Pong” might seem a little subdued, but Cleaver lets fly with some explosive fills beneath the soloists. The album’s title aptly describes the makeup of Formanek’s compositions, which have many small sections, offering something substantial to anyone ready to explore them. And even when the sound becomes spare and quiet, the suspense never flags.