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Before & After with Michael Formanek

The veteran bassist doesn’t move on a flat line

Michael Formanek
Michael Formanek (photo courtesy of Newvelle Records)

“My expectations of myself in this are low,” Michael Formanek said over Zoom from the music room of his West Orange, New Jersey house before embarking on his first-ever Before & After listening session. The 63-year-old bassist/composer was much too modest; his responses to a varied selection of tracks speak to the open, grounded, speculative attitude that infuses his 15 albums as a leader and his numerous collaborative and sideperson projects since 1990.

At that time, Formanek—who’d apprenticed as a Bay Area teenager on gigs with, among others, Joe Henderson, Tony Williams, and Eddie Henderson before moving to New York in 1978—was a first-call sideman, whose credits included stints playing “jazz music of all ends of the spectrum” with, to cite a short list, Freddie Hubbard, Fred Hersch, Stan Getz, Toshiko Akiyoshi, and the Mingus Big Band. Then, Formanek recalled, he shifted his focus to “composing, and also putting myself in situations that challenged and interested me. ‘Okay, I’ve done a lot of this, I know what this is, but now I need to find people, find ideas.’ Something happens on a project, and I’ll hyper-focus on that thing and it becomes the next thing, or I’ll make a clean break and start with a different instrumentation, as well as making records with people who call me more to contribute to the music rather than just come in and support everything else. I try to find my own vat of craziness from which to pull out material.”

Since moving to West Orange in 2018, after concluding 17 years on the faculty of Baltimore’s Peabody Institute, Formanek has conceptualized and executed numerous leader and collaborative projects. His good friend Adam Hopkins’ Out of Your Head label recently released Dyads, a duo encounter between Formanek and his son Peter on saxophone, and Pre-Apocalyptic, documenting a 2014 concert with the quartet (Tim Berne, Craig Taborn, Gerald Cleaver) that debuted on Formanek’s early-2010s ECM albums Small Places and The Rub and Spare Change. Never Is Enough and The Anthony Braxton Project (Cuneiform) are the fifth and sixth albums by the Thumbscrew trio with guitarist Mary Halvorson and drummer Tomas Fujiwara, while Imperfect Measures is Formanek’s second solo bass album. The Swiss label Intakt, which released the latter title, also put out Time Like This in 2018, with Formanek’s Elusion Quartet featuring Tony Malaby, Kris Davis, and Ches Smith; in 2019 they issued Even Better, a gorgeous trio recital with Halvorson and Berne, a frequent musical partner for the last 30 years.

“The trust was there from the beginning,” Formanek says of his relationship with Berne. “It’s the way we hear rhythms, the way rhythms combine with certain intervals and dissonances, like creating music from shards of different sounds that aren’t necessarily moving on a flat line, that have some bumps and scratches and high spots and contrast. Then, underneath it, a love of groove, of melody, of interaction, of things pushing up against each other and creating something new just by the nature of having different elements collide—and not backing off from those things. I’ve gotten so much from Tim, but he’s played a lot of my music too. I end up hearing him in me sometimes, and I hear me in him.”

Also in the pipeline is the self-released Were We Where We Were (Circular File) by Formanek’s Drome Trio with saxophonist Chet Doxas and drummer Vinnie Sperazza, which plays repertoire based on palindromic musical forms.

“It’s been a busy time,” he said. “A bunch of stuff—I like all of it.”

Listen to a Spotify playlist featuring most of the songs in this Before & After:

1. Gonzalo Rubalcaba/Ron Carter/Jack DeJohnette
“Gypsy” (from Skyline, 5Pasion). Rubalcaba, piano; Carter, bass, composer; DeJohnette, drums. Recorded in 2020.

BEFORE: The pianist is an incredible musician. I was fascinated by the arc of the solo, as it evolved from the sparse part in the beginning through the linear eighth-note language with a straight-up-and-down drum part, into that short, much busier, more abstract section, then back to the other end. I assume it’s the pianist’s recording, though it could easily have been the bass player’s. I don’t know either of them. I heard something of Ron Carter in the sound approach and some gestural things—but it’s more conversational with the pianist at various points than I’m used to hearing from Ron. Just from the string sounds, it doesn’t seem like an older recording.

AFTER: I was curious about this record but hadn’t heard it. I wouldn’t have guessed Jack. I know some of Ron’s older tunes, but I did not know that one. He remains very important to me in certain respects. I came into jazz with a bit of this and a bit of that, and one path was through CTI. I was way into this guy who’s on all these records, with this huge sound and amazing conception, and seems to always play the right thing for the music. As I listened to him more with Miles, it really fit how I was hearing things. His sound was always an important component, but almost more than that was the way he built a piece—his knowledge of harmony and theory. It blew me away how he’d add context and variety with Herbie Hancock and Tony Williams, how he created using rhythmic and harmonic pedals. Early on I tried to internalize as much of that as I could. I love his way of playing very lightly, but with such depth and definition. Not long ago I was on a recording session where I had to play a fast bassline, and the only way I could play it was to think about the bounce Ron got in his right hand. So even technically, I’ve stolen or borrowed things from him that I greatly appreciate.

2. James Leary
“So Far So Good” (from Legacy, Blue Collar). Leary, bass, composer, arrangement; Joe Henderson (solo), Da’ud David Johnson, Tod Dickow, tenor saxophones; Fred Berry, Tim Acosta, Zane Woodworth, Cal Lewiston, trumpets; Fred Mergy, Gordon Messick, John Russell, Nic tenBroek, trombones; Steve Keller, Charlie McCarthy Jr., alto saxophones and flutes; Ray Loeckle, baritone saxophone; George Cables, piano; Eddie Marshall, drums; Kenneth Nash, percussion. Recorded in 1980.

BEFORE: I’ve never heard that, that I’m aware of. I feel I know the tune or some version of it. At first I thought the bass sounded a bit like Rufus Reid. Parts of it sound like maybe an older recording, so I’m not sure. I recognize the style of writing through some Quincy [Jones] and [Bob] Brookmeyer, and then later maybe Jim McNeely—but it wasn’t that. The tenor solo was so Joe Henderson, but I wasn’t totally sure even about that, so I started to second-guess myself. At one point I thought Rich Perry, which could be in that same zone, but the development was different than I’d expect. Really nicely done. Having the hand percussion and the groove for the piano solo sounded familiar too.

AFTER: James talked a lot about his writing and his arranging, and the big band sometimes played at the [original San Francisco] Keystone Korner, but for some reason I never saw it. I did see James play a lot then with Bobby [Hutcherson] and many small groups.

He mentored you as an emerging professional in the Bay Area.

Yes, I went from knowing almost nothing about jazz to total immersion, in a short period of time. I lived there as a musician for only about four years—starting at 16 and getting more active as I went on. You probably know Bobby Hutcherson’s album Montara. I lived in Pacifica, a coastal suburb between San Francisco and Montara, where Bobby lived. There was [and still is—Ed.] a club nearby called the Bach Dancing & Dynamite Society, a beach house where a guy named Pete Douglas put on Sunday concerts. Everybody played there: Bill Evans, Thad Jones, Mel Lewis, John Handy (who lived there), Bobby. I went even before I’d started playing or hearing jazz much. Then I got my driver’s license. I started to go to the Keystone, saw Mingus a couple of times, Stan Getz, Cecil Taylor—over time, I got to see everybody. James was the house bass player. I studied with him for a while. He was an excellent teacher. It was pretty basic, like, “Put your fingers here, make sure it sounds in tune.” When James wasn’t around to do the Keystone gigs, I’d sub for him. I did part of a week with Art Pepper, with Eddie Marshall and George Cables. Eventually, I worked with Joe Henderson some, with Tony Williams in a more rock-like band, with Eddie Henderson and Dave Liebman.

When I was 16, I got a gig with Bishop Norman Williams, an alto saxophonist from Kansas City, who was a San Francisco mainstay since the ’50s. He used to run the jam sessions at Jimbo’s Bop City and the Both/And. When the Both/And reopened for a while, I started playing gigs with him there. But we would also do these morning sessions, in two or three different places, usually from six to 11 a.m. There were two or three different places where we did them. That took me from my nice little town basically right into the ’hood. It looked like a scene out of Superfly. It was very intense. Divisadero Street is where it was all happening. The guys did their after-hours hangs or whatever they did, and then the bars could open at six, so that was the first stop.

“I try to find my own vat of craziness from which to pull out material.”

3. Dave Holland
“Passing Time” (from Another Land, Edition). Holland, bass, composer; Kevin Eubanks, guitar; Obed Calvaire, drums. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: Again, it’s familiar, but I don’t know the specific musicians. I found the drummer most interesting. I don’t think it was Brian Blade, but certain things reminded me of his ability to create a delicate dance, with softer, lighter rhythms, while the bass was holding everything down in the bottom, filling that space. The guitarist is a solid-body player who plays with his fingers a lot, with incredible control. I can’t identify who it was. What the bass player played was really solid; it felt very correct for the situation—a nice balance with the rhythm section. Who was it?

AFTER: That was Dave Holland? Wow. Sorry, Dave. I didn’t get it. He was playing totally for the piece, but his personality didn’t totally come across for me. I know Dave’s music through so many different incarnations, but to be honest, I relate to him more in his soloistic and improvisational capacities. This was a subdued piece—everything was right, but things didn’t take off in a certain way, which is appropriate for the piece. Also, I missed the resonance and richness in the low and lower-middle register that I think about with Dave. I’m not sure if that’s because I’m hearing everything through the compressed files, through the headphones, whatever.

I heard Dave early with Anthony Braxton on the Arista/Freedom records, so I knew that music somewhat, and I saw him with Sam Rivers’ trio, which I loved, with either Barry Altschul or Bobby Battle on drums. I remember approaching him between sets at the back bar of the Keystone, where they served food. Of course, these guys were playing an hour and a half, balls to the wall, intense improvisation, and he was standing there, having a little space. I said something like, “Oh, Mr. Holland, I really love your playing with Jack DeJohnette on…” Gateway or whatever; I don’t remember what it was. He looked at me, and goes, “Yeah, I like playing with Jack.” That was the conversation. “Okay, I’ll walk away now.” He didn’t engage much, but he was also very kind. He didn’t call me a complete idiot and send me on my way. He’s a very nice man.

4. Larry Grenadier
“Pettiford” (The Gleaners, ECM). Grenadier, bass, composer. Recorded in 2016.

BEFORE: Again, the playing is familiar. I think it’s a very well-established player, someone I should probably identify by hearing them. I also feel I know the tune, but I didn’t quite catch it. There’s some Oscar Pettiford in the bass line, the melody line, something from tunes I know.

AFTER: I’ve heard a little bit of this album, but not that piece. Excellent playing. He definitely captured some OP in there.

Another bass player from the Bay Area, albeit a decade younger than you.

Yes. He also started out pretty young. I know he played a little with Joe Henderson and some of the other people out there before he moved to the East Coast. I became aware of him after I moved to New York. He’s developed a personal voice that he applies to a lot of settings, with a beautiful, rich sound, which I value a lot, and a great sense of space and clarity and self-editing. What I remember hearing on this record was much more arco, high harmonic playing—it was beautiful. He played a Paul Motian tune, as part of a medley. [This was “The Owl of Cranston,” in conjunction with John Coltrane’s “Compassion.” —Ed.]

5. Wayne Shorter
“She Moves Through the Fair” (Emanon, Blue Note). Shorter, tenor saxophone; Danilo Pérez, piano; John Patitucci, bass; Brian Blade, drums. Recorded live at the Barbican, London, in 2016.

BEFORE: I think it’s a European festival concert. Maybe a hat Hut record. The bass player for moments seemed familiar. When the tenor player finally came in, I felt something, but I wasn’t sure. It’s a beautiful recording with a lot of character; it evolved with an organic flow and a beautiful sound. The drummer had some beautiful moments, punctuating and shifting through things that were happening along the way, and there were great moments in the piano solo. I liked how the rhythm part developed, how the bass pedal developed over time and got more of that lopey swing. But I didn’t recognize anyone.

AFTER: Geez, that’s amazing. I guess I should’ve known that one. Wayne snuck in there in that spot—it was amazing, actually. I love Brian Blade, and John and Danilo are great players. But with Wayne, I have my places that I go, and they’re usually older recordings. He’s still one of the great masters, and elusive as always—and that incredible voice and brilliant mind. The way he abstracts things, there’s so much in there, like mining for gold, and finding these incredible little nooks and crannies of the music.

I went to college for one year, in 1975-76, at what was then California State University at Hayward, in the East Bay, south of Oakland. After a year I basically dropped out and played until I moved to New York. A year or two after I left, my former teacher, Jeff Neighbor, told me about an excellent young bass player there named John Patitucci who I should check out. I didn’t meet John until later. He sat in with Freddie Hubbard a few times when I was playing with Freddie.

Ted Panken

Ted Panken writes extensively about jazz and creative music for various publications, and programmed jazz and creative music on WKCR-FM in New York City from 1985 through 2008. He won the 2007 ASCAP Deems Taylor Award for his article “Smalls Universe,” published by DownBeat, and earned the Jazz Journalists’ Association 2016 Lifetime Achievement in Jazz Journalism award. His blog, Today Is The Question, contains over 260 of his articles and verbatim interviews.