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The Gig: Michael Formanek

Powering from within

Michael Formanek
Michael Formanek (photo: Jason Paul Harman Byrne)
Michael Formanek Ensemble Kolossus, NYC Winter Jazzfest, January 2016

Bigness becomes Michael Formanek. An acoustic bassist with a hulking, roomy sound, he has always seemed like one of those musicians whose playing is an extension of his physical self. That’s reductive, and perhaps a bit ridiculous, but go ahead and listen to “Diesel Shortbread”-a deep-drone concerto from Formanek’s 1998 solo bass album, Am I Bothering You?-and tell me you don’t hear the virtuoso rambling of one expressly large dude.

By that token, Ensemble Kolossus, as Formanek calls his new 18-piece chamber orchestra, suggests the logical embodiment of an idea. A choice assortment of improvisers culled from the experimental ranks in New York, it’s also a big band, with equal weight landing on each word in that alliterative term. The Distance, the band’s impressive debut album, and Formanek’s third as a leader on ECM, often achieves a crushing density of sound-but even during lighter, sparser moments, the music’s center of gravity feels definitively low-slung. If the recent aesthetic signature of the Maria Schneider Orchestra can be said to suggest a wheeling kite, and Darcy James Argue’s Secret Society conjures a complex whir of gears, what springs to mind with Ensemble Kolossus is the galumphing onrush of a charging rhinoceros.

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