Michael Formanek: The Rub and Spare Change

While alto-sax firebrand Tim Berne hasn’t officially recorded as a leader for ECM, he has been slipping in the side door in provocative ways in recent years. David Torn’s Cloud About Mercury was essentially a more ambient reworking of Berne’s Science Friction band, and now bassist Michael Formanek’s potent brew of a label debut essentially features Berne’s band. Compared to Torn’s album, Formanek’s gripping The Rub and Spare Change taps more into the angular and aggressive side of the Berne aesthetic, offering up a case study running counter to the stereotyped vision of a cool, Northerly “ECM sound.”

Berne’s presence is strong here, but the inventive voice of pianist Craig Taborn is even stronger, and drummer Gerald Cleaver keeps track of the shifting rhythmic topography and expressive heat levels. Formanek’s always moving and surprising compositions offer the players fluid forums for stretching, individually and as an interactive unit. The dual-sectioned title track blends nostalgic references to the leader’s early love of Tower of Power’s rhythmic intricacies with a freer, floating passage, “Spare Change.” In its own way, “Tonal Suite” packs a lot of info into a seamlessly evolving 17-minute suite, swerving around poles of openness to a taut, melodic unison line at the finish.

Moods and densities shift over the course of the album, from the deceptively simple 23-note ostinato anchoring “Twenty Three Neo” to the melancholia-turned-anger of “Jack’s Last Call,” a requiem for a friend who recently passed. “Too Big to Fall” checks in with the Wall Street debacle in no uncertain musical terms, closing the album on a ferocious collective note. Here, Berne and Taborn duet in a way both enraged and engaging, while Cleaver and Formanek keep the

bottom-line fires blazing.

This is a smart and bracing ECM debut, and an album not for the lightheaded.