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Before & After with Michael Formanek

The veteran bassist doesn’t move on a flat line

Michael Formanek takes a coffee break
Michael Formanek pauses for a pandemic-era coffee break (photo: Palma Fiacco)

6. Carlos Henriquez
“Boro of Fire” (The South Bronx Story, Tiger Turn). Henriquez, bass, composer; Marshall Gilkes, trombone; Michael Rodriguez (solo), Terell Stafford, trumpets; Melissa Aldana, tenor saxophone; Jeremy Bosch, flute; Robert Rodriguez, piano; Obed Calvaire, drums; Anthony Almonte, congas. Recorded in 2019.

BEFORE: Is that a Brian Lynch recording? Obviously, the rhythmic part was based in Afro-Cuban music and clave, but with some odd meters and odd beat groupings that were handled really well. The bass player not only had a great feel but a great sound, really consistent and clear. The soloists were good, and the lead conga player was great, with a beautiful sound. In that music, I love the sound of the hand drums as a voice, more than just a rhythmic accompaniment—and it blends so well with the bass. Nice arrangement.

AFTER: Wow. [Turns around and touches the middle bass of the three behind him] This bass used to be Carlos’. He lives very close to where I am. I haven’t heard this record; it’s another one I plan to check out. He’s a great bass player. The Ampeg Baby Bass, which has a very distinctive sound, became very popular in Afro-Cuban music at a certain point. But to play those parts—and those tumbao parts—with a great acoustic bass sound, and also hear the clarity and richness of the tone … that means a lot to me. Hats off to Carlos for that.

San Francisco has had a thriving Afro-Latin scene for years.

One of the great things about being in San Francisco was that so many different things were going on. Not only all the rock and pop and funk happening at the time, but also Latin music. It was extended Latin music too, not just Afro-Cuban—a lot of people from Mexico and different Central American countries, and a big Brazilian scene. You played everything with everybody. It was not uncommon for me to go to 25th and Army, say, and play in a Latin club and basically have to fake my way through it. My exposure to Latin music was much more playing with Brazilian musicians, which I did a lot.

Didn’t you go to Niagara Falls and Buffalo for an extended gig with a Brazilian band before you went to New York?


Yeah, I did. Edison Machado wound up being the drummer. Through that experience I met Duduka Da Fonseca and other great musicians in New York who I worked with a lot for years. I had experience with Afro-Cuban music—I was in bands with some great musicians from that world, including things with Bobby Sanabria early on. But I never wanted to play at it. I either wanted to really know it, or not. I knew my limits.

“The first time I saw Mark Dresser was a John Zorn gig—the music of Oscar Pettiford, in fact! They were playing the heads of ‘Tamalpais’ and ‘Tricotism’ and then just going nuts.”

7. Marilyn Crispell/Mark Dresser/Gerry Hemingway
“Composition 108C/110/69Q” (Play Braxton, Tzadik). Crispell, piano; Dresser, bass; Hemingway, drums. Recorded in 2010.

BEFORE: It sounds a lot like Mark Dresser. It’s oldish, though, right?


Depends what we mean by old.

It’s Gerry Hemingway, right? Is it Marilyn?

AFTER: I don’t know this record. It’s always great to hear those guys play. It definitely sounded like Braxton. I didn’t know those specific pieces. They play that music better than anybody. You’re always on the edge of your seat, trying to follow everything that’s happening. Fantastic musicians. Gerry was so on it; it’s amazing how melodically he played everything, and his time stuff … I played with him a lot, but not as much since he’s been living in Switzerland. Braxton’s early recordings, New York, 1974, all the ones from that period, were formative for me. I actually did a large group gig with him once, which was amazing. I went through his compositions at his archive in New Haven when Thumbscrew was preparing to record The Anthony Braxton Project, to find things that suited us as a group. It’s unbelievable how much music he’s written, and the specificity and the detail that he has in mind. I’d looked at Braxton’s music, but never at his composition notes, which give you so much insight into who he is as an artist and as a composer.

Mark Dresser was in L.A. when you were in San Francisco. Was there any intersection?

Not until later, after I’d already been in New York awhile. I had a connection with Joey Baron in the ’80s, when he was playing gigs with Tim Berne and different people, and Mark’s name came up a few times. I think the first time I saw Mark (I don’t remember if I even met him) was a John Zorn gig—the music of Oscar Pettiford, in fact! They were playing at a club in the East Village, King Tut’s Wah-Wah Hut, 7th and Avenue A. It was Dresser, I think Hank Roberts on cello, Jeff Hirshfield playing drums, and Zorn, playing the heads of “Tamalpais” and “Tricotism” and then just going nuts. I’d also started checking out some of Tim’s Columbia records, like Fractured Fairy Tales, at that time.


8. Boris Kozlov
“Viscous” (First Things First, Posi-Tone). Kozlov, bass; Donny McCaslin, tenor saxophone; Behn Gillece, vibraphone; Art Hirahara, piano; Rudy Royston, drums. Recorded in 2020.

BEFORE: I enjoyed that track. It had a lot of reference points for me. I came up listening to those mid-1960s Tony Williams records with Sam Rivers and Gary Peacock and Richard Davis; the sound of this record makes me think about those sounds that I loved. The tenor sounds not totally like Wayne Shorter or Sam, but out of that sound world. The bass player was hard to identify, between the arco and the pizzicato playing. The piece had a nice shape, a nice character.

AFTER: He’s a great bass player, and he’s done a great job playing [with the Mingus Big Band, as Formanek once did] for all those years. I know some of the records they’ve done. I know Donny’s altissimo range and his beautiful, warm sound. I don’t know the vibes player; the starkness made me think about the way vibes used to sound. There wasn’t much motor or pedaled-down stuff; it was a little more percussive, which was cool. I’ve heard Rudy Royston with Bill Frisell and different people, and always enjoy his playing. Coincidentally, I recently did the Mingus band a few times, after 25 years of not doing it—it was wild to come back and realize that some things haven’t changed at all, and some things have. I really enjoyed it. The music has always been close to my heart.

9. Charles Mingus
“Track B—Duet Solo Dancers: Hearts’ Beat and Shades in Physical Embraces” (The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady, Impulse!). Rolf Ericson, Richard Williams, trumpet; Quentin Jackson, trombone; Don Butterfield, tuba; Jerome Richardson, soprano, baritone sax, flute; Charles Mariano, alto sax; Dick Hafer, tenor sax and flute; Jaki Byard, piano; Jay Berliner, guitar; Mingus, bass; Dannie Richmond, drums; Bob Hammer, arranger. Recorded in 1963.


BEFORE: What a record! It doesn’t get any better than that for me. I probably heard Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus first, but it’s the same period, practically the same sessions. Black Saint and the Sinner Lady became even more important to me when I started to think more about composition and extended compositions and Ellington and all that. The tunes, the music, the playing—it’s such a great record.

Mingus had such a multifaceted personality. His composing alone had its own spectrum of facets, and then as a bass player and pianist and all the other ways. He’s still one of my favorite bassists of all time, for his range, depth, complete technical mastery. Red Mitchell once told me, “Mingus was the first bass player that played all four corners of the instrument.” He meant that he played the instrument like a piano or any other instrument, using the entire “workspace,” the entire surface, to use for his expressive means. That was innovative. Often bass players play across and [then] up, or play diagonally up the instrument. But he was very comfortable in any of the different quadrants of the bass, with sounds that he could pull out and things he could play in those areas.

I loved his sound in the late ’50s/early ’60s, but these Impulse! records are some of my favorite bass sounds ever. “Mood Indigo” on Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus Mingus still floors me. He hits everything that needs to be there—the places where melody and harmony come together and important cadences—but it’s what he plays in between them, how he phrases through something not necessarily with eighth notes or triplets but so many different subdivisions of the beat, with this beautiful, expressive dynamic shading. It’s a whole lifetime to check out that solo.


There’s this incredible sense of love and caring and thoughtfulness about everything he plays and he writes. When I play his music, I feel a responsibility to be diligent about being conscious of what he wrote and why he wrote it, but also to dig deep inside and try to pull something out that’s your own guts and brain and heart and soul. He not only permitted that, but I think he demanded that to happen. What was he trying to bring out of the musicians? Sometimes those things are very subtle. If you’re playing “Duke Ellington’s Sound of Love” or one of the beautiful ballads, it has a certain character, but some chaos in the music could be there. He had this incredible sense of controlling the things that need to be controlled and being able to completely let go of other things. I try to play his music with that philosophy.

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.